And now back to the Larry Show, already in progress
|PCC, Inc. President Lawrence Fitzmorris lectures the Town Council on law, accounting, finance, ethics, municipal bonds, the Town Charter, Rhode Island General Laws, and the Rhode Island Fire Code.|
Insufferable. That's the only way to describe the three-hour meeting of the Portsmouth Town Council this evening. Not only did PCC, Inc. President Larry Fitzmorris repeatedly take the podium to harangue the Council on the Town Charter and matters financial, but Town Councilor Tailgunner Gleason actually invited him to advise the Town on how to resolve a spending question. Make that insufferable and incomprehensible. The only redeeming feature of the evening was that it provided a good excuse to miss the State of the Union.
You won't see that lede from Matt Sheley or Jill Rodriques. They are fine journalists, but they have to be objective. I'm just telling the truth.
The evening started off on a bad note, as the 35 citizens in attendance heard one of those buried land mines in the appointment agenda detonate unexpectedly. The Portsmouth Redevelopment Agency (PRA) had a opening, and the Town Council was being asked to either reappoint former Chair Helen Mathieu or a newcomer, Guy Bottari. When the Council moved to deny Mathieu reappointment, there was considerable foofraw from suspects both usual and unusual.
PRA member MaryAnn Edwards urged reconsideration. "Helen has worked tirelessly with us. We need continuity." New member of the PRA Paul Kesson acknowledged, "There's been some heated meetings," but went on to say, "Helen brings to all of us the importance of not just making an easy decision." And resident Kathy Melvin said, "I've known her for 35 years. Why this is even a matter for discussion I don't know. Do the honorable thing."
When the Council vote went 4-3 against Mathieu, Melvin stormed out of the room. "You're disgraceful," she said to the Council.
"That was uncalled for," responded Council President Canario.
I caught up with Ms. Melvin outside the Council chambers, and she was visibly distraught. "She is one of the most intelligent women," said Melvin, arguing that the Council didn't want to reappoint Mathieu because she's not "one of those who carry water" and because of differences over "affordable housing." I promised Ms. Melvin I would report accurately what she said, and I have.
When I asked members of the Council about the decision after the meeting, they were effusive in their praise of Ms. Mathieu. "We all thank her for her service, and her vision," said Town Councilor Len Katzman. But he noted that the PRA had moved from its startup phase, where they were constructing the plan for the tank farms, into more of an implementation period. "It is just time for a different set of skills," said Katzman. And as much I like conspiracy theories (and I do) sometimes it does come down to appointing people with a certain set of skills, and not everybody has the skill set for every part of a job.
But there was one man in the Council Chamber who has like total m4d sk1llz, and he had them all on display tonight. The rest of the meeting was dominated by Larry Fitzmorris who pwned the podium and repeatedly reminded the Council (and Town administration, and, by extension, all us folks who voted for these people) just how stupid they are.
First the yearly audit report came in from Hague, Sahady & Company, and although the bottom line is that the town is "moving in the right direction" the auditors did recommend improving the fund balance. Councilor Peter McIntyre suggested that the Council request that the School Department surrender the $230K in unexpected Medicaid reimbursements that they received in June (as discussed by the auditors at the School Committee last week.) The motion passed unanimously, and Larry got up to poke at the audit process.
"Let me make a general comment," he began. "I'm concerned that this is not independent. The people being audited select the auditors. Other towns have an audit committee. I recommend the Council make a change."
Town Finance Director Dave Faucher explained how the auditor is selected, through a full RFP and vote by the council, including bid specifications reviewed and approved by the RI Auditor General, who also, he said, "Receives a copy of the audited financials and reviews them in great detail." But this did not seem to satisfy Larry.
"In the corporate world, this would not be done," he asserted. "We should do it like they do in Tiverton. The electors elect an audit board."
Here's what I don't understand. If you don't trust the elected members of the Town Council, how does electing an audit board to hire an auditor make any difference? Once they're elected, they're just Town officials like the Council, and you're back to hiring people to audit yourself. Fundamentally, this is a matter of trust. Either you believe that when you hire an auditor, they are going to be professional and objective, or you are living in a world where you can't trust auditors to be objective, and in that case, how can it possibly matter WHO hires them? (I do love conspiracy theories, but not every auditor secretly hopes to create the next Enron or Société Générale.)
Then came amendments to the Town budget to deal with some new revenue (FEMA money from the Noreaster, additional user fees, a settlement for some tree damage) and all this would have sailed right through if the recommendation was to just dump the money in the fund balance. But Faucher and Town Admin Bob Driscoll had, quite rightly in my opinion, looked to use that money to deliver services, which meant increasing the apparent expenditures of the Town by $73K. [Update: I have corrected on the previous sentence on advice from a source familiar with Town administration. To be clear: there were cuts made in the proposed budget in anticipation of the $140K cut we expect to receive in State aid, but because of the FEMA money and other revenues, these cuts were not as deep, so there was the *appearance* of the expenditures side of the balance sheet being higher.]
"I'd like to speak to a particular point in the Charter," said Larry. "The Council has budget authority at the time the budget is adopted, but does not have authority to change it once adopted. See Charter section 207, Powers." Members of the Council began flipping through their copies. "This process of modifying the budget mid year is wrong."
"This is the same issue as the Tent Meeting," said Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin. "The Council has general policy-maiking authority." I can't believe we're still beating this dead horse. Fitzmorris wants to read this one line in the budget section of the Charter as if it is the only controlling word; the logical counterexample that Bob Driscoll raised, of FEMA giving us money that we can't spend, is, to my mind, compelling. The Council clearly has the authority to spend a check that the Federal government gives them.
"There's another option," said Tailgunner Gleason. "You can start loooking for cuts." And as if that wasn't enough, as if it is not enough for a Town Councilor to look for ways for the government to provide LESS services to citizens after so many items were slashed from the last budget, she added insult to injury. "I would like to ask Mr. Fitzmorris, if we have some money coming in, what would you do with it?"
I am absolutely gobsmacked. I cannot wait to post this clip on YouTube, because the sight of a sitting Town Council member asking for advice from the leader of the organization that cut $600K from the Town budget and forced the schools into a Caruolo Action, well, that's pretty much the killer campaign spot right there.
Eventually, by a 5-2 vote, with the unlikely pair of Canario and Gleason opposed, the changes to the budget were approved provisionally.
Then it was on to issuing the bonds for sprinklering the Middle School. Just to be on the record, the Council made sure that this was required for the state fire code, that there was no other way to pay for it, and that we had already received an extension from the State Fire Marshall, and Chief Lynch told the Council that he was dubious they would be granted any further extensions.
Larry had his hand up.
"I anticipate a short speech about the evils of borrowing," said Councilor Katzman. "If there are alternatives, I'm all ears. We need to either pass this or come up with an alternative."
"I will confirm Mr Katzman's anticipation of the lecture on debt," said Larry, and he began by citing an alleged $9.1M in borrowing that the Council had done this year.
At that point, Katzman interrupted and noted that Fitzmorris was lumping together all the bonds passed at referendum, including open space, which was "Not all to be spent this year."
So Fitzmorris tried another tack. Citing a new law that just took effect on January 1, which he only referred to as "Section 16," he said that "All bonds have to be passed at referendum. You don't have authority without a vote of the people." Now without a more definitive citation, it's hard to be sure, but it may be that Fitzmorris is referring to H60512, now 16-7-44. Here's the relevant phrase: "these instruments are subject to the public review and voter approval otherwise required by law for the issuance of bonds or capital leases." I'm not a lawyer, but I don't read that as necessarily requiring a vote, unless the law already requires it, and towns have certain powers to borrow without having to go to referendum. [Update: The actual cited law may be 45-12-2.1]
The Council expressed concern ("Mr. Fitzmorris did present us with what I believe to be an authentic piece of paper," said Council President Canario) but seemed inclined to proceed, and voted unanimously to approve the bond, pending review by the bond counsel.
After a brief undercard tussle over whether to grant an exclusive franchise to one vendor at Sandy Point this summer (the Council will solicit a variety of bids, both exclusive and non-exclusive, and for different categories or the whole enchilada) the meeting adjourned at about 10pm.
It's no secret that I'm a supporter of the schools, but my response to the PCC attempting to turn fire protection into a financial issue disgusts me for a very personal reason. I survived a fire in my high school, back in Brooklyn, in 1974. Candles in a third-floor chapel ignited fabrics that engulfed the room in minutes; by the time the alarm sounded and we left our class — right across the hall — there was smoke and flame coming out the chapel door. We made it to the stairs, but the next class down the hall was forced to evacuate out windows to the roof of the gym, where the Fire Department had to rescue them. There were no injuries, but a whole lot of kids were scared well beyond their years, and it could have all been avoided if the building had been sprinklered.
I don't find Larry's procedural wrangling compelling. Nor any platitudes about probability. Nothing is as compelling as the clear terror of walking out of your classroom into a hallway filled with smoke. That's not a moment you ever forget, nor one which any sane person would allow to happen to the children of this town.