Town Council

Reminder: Portsmouth Charter review at the Council tonight

On the agenda for tonight's Town Council meeting is discussion and action on the report of the Charter Review Committee (CRC), and anyone interested in our town's governing document will want to be there. You can read my coverage of the proposals, and rest assured, the PCC will be there to whine about the fact that most of their amendments were voted down after rational and deliberate discussion.

Democracy is decided by those who show up.

Let's be sure the Council remembers that tonight.

Full disclosure: Both my wife and I are appointed members of the CRC.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council

Portsmouth Town Council goes upriver to join Colonel Kurtz

According to the liveblog of the meeting on Patch, the Portsmouth Town Council, at their provisional budget hearing last night, spiked a proposal to increase the school budget by a mere $1M, proposed eliminating the full-time Town Planner and Director of Business Development, suggested dropping out of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, and proposed turning off street lights to save money.

Seriously — go read the transcript. The school budget deal was proposed by Jonathan Freaking Harris — the hard Republican bean counter on the school committee, a wealth-management professional and a unyielding fiscal watchdog. And it was supported by Democrat Jim Seveney, who has been unequivocal in backing the schools. In exchange for the increase, the deal would have transferred $1M from a school "surplus" to the Town for their fund balance, and allowed the schools to move the tech warrants into the operating budget.

And this Council still couldn't find the votes.

Oh, and for my neighbors here in Island Park, the Council deadlocked on an emergency notification system. According to Patch, Councilor Judy Staven said, "If we have a hurricane, turn your TV on. That's how I found out about Hurricane Irene." Seriously — we have no Escape Bridge, and they want to outsource the public safety function to television?

Full disclosure: A slug, crawling along the edge of a straight razor. This is my dream. This is my nightmare.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council

Portsmouth announces budget meeting and workshop schedule

The town of Portsmouth announced the upcoming budget schedule in an e-mail to news media this afternoon. All meetings take place at 7pm in the Town Council chambers except as noted.

April 30: Capital Improvement Plan
May 1: Police, Fire DPW
May 2: All other budgets
May 3 6:30pm Portsmouth Library: Council-School Committee budget collaboration workshop.
May 7: Budget Workshop Panel #3 - State Mandates - Pension Experience Study
May 14: Regular Town Council Meeting
May 15: School Budget and Adopt Provisional Budget
June 13, 7pm, Portsmouth Middle School: Public Budget Hearing
June 25: Council adopts budget

Editorial note: I'm intrigued (and mildly amused) that the kumbaya session between the Council and School Committee was scheduled for neutral turf at the Library. I guess it was either that or Fort Butts with brass knuckles...

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, School Committee, Budget

Portsmouth budget hearing Wednesday night (update)

Tomorrow night, June 22 at 7pm in the PMS theater, the Portsmouth Town Council holds the final public hearing on the 2011-12 budget, and everyone is encouraged to attend and weigh in on the the Council's proposal. You can read the top line here, or download the whole package from the Town web site.

If you've been following along, you know that this budget is not as bad as it could have been. If you support the schools and want to keep town services from being slashed any further, you might want to show up and thank the Council for their work.

I'm not saying this is a *good* budget, but remember, they have one more bite at the apple when they formally enact the ordinance next week. A word in their ear might help them resist when folks from the PCC get up and tell them to take that last opportunity to cut.

Update: Added time and location in lede. D'oh. Multitasking.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, Budget

Portsmouth EDC Chair calls Clark "vital to economic health" of town

The Portsmouth Town Council, at their budget meeting this week, tentatively cut the line item for Director of Business development, a position with responsibility for attracting and supporting commercial activity in town. Bill Clark has held this part-time position for the past 8 years.

Reaction to the decision has been immediate from members of the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee (PEDC). Doug Smith authored a post on Portsmouth Patch, "Why is Portsmouth Self-destructing?" where he notes that Clark's role "represents just about the minimum that Portsmouth can do to be considered friendly to businesses." And Andrew Kelly has started an online campaign to e-mail the Council asking them to reconsider their decision. Nut graf from Kelly: "Given the increasing burden of taxes that fall on homeowners in this Town, is this decision to abandon business development in the best interests of your constituents?"

When contacted for an official response, PEDC Chair Rich Talipsky replied by e-mail, and it deserves quoting at length:

After provisionally approving the funding of Bill Clark as Portsmouth's Director of Business Development on May 11, the Town Council, apparently without any warning, decided to eliminate his funding at their budget meeting of May 19.

The PEDC intends to strongly recommend that the Town Council reconsider funding for the Director of Business Development in the Town FY 2011-2012 Budget.

Mr. Clark’s service in assisting the PEDC has been exceptional. His continued service as the Town’s Director of Business Development is vital to the economic health of the Town and essential to the continued effectiveness of the PEDC. The tax revenues provided by our businesses generate much more revenue to the Town than they command in Town services. This revenue is absolutely critical to the economic solvency of the Town. In the face of an erosion of the business tax base in the 1990’s from 18 percent to nearly 10 percent, the PEDC recommended the creation of a full-time Director of Business Development as an essential part of a strategy to mitigate the decline. The Town Council approved a part-time consultant position in 2002. In the selection process, the Town was exceptionally fortunate to find Bill Clark who had the knowledge, experience, and personality to take on the exceptionally challenging job. Bill Clark immediately established himself as the central point of contact for Town business development as an advocate of both current and prospective businesses.

Since 2001, the Town’s business tax base has steadied out at about 10 percent. The mitigation of the eroding tax base can be directly attributable to the PEDC becoming much more proactive in the activities that affect the business climate in Portsmouth. Although it would be naive to assume that the efforts of Bill Clark were sole contributors to the tax base stabilization, it is clear that Bill has been a critical element in the strategy of the PEDC towards the improvement of the business climate of the Town.

The value of a position like that of Director of Business Development is very hard to quantify in that it involves many activities on which no exact economic value can be placed. During his time as Director of Business Development, Bill has established himself as a trusted partner to Town businesses, the Town Staff, Boards and Committees, Newport County organizations such as the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, Aquidneck Island Land Trust and Newport County Chamber of Commerce (which has continued to support Portsmouth despite their Portsmouth Town funding being eliminated in the current year’s budget) and State and Federal agencies. He has engendered support from local businesses and non-profit institutions (like the Portsmouth Abbey) in both monetary donations and use of facilities to host PEDC strategic planning events. Losing Bill would leave a void as he acts as a clearinghouse for business development issues and provides an exceptional array of services and information. He represents the Town at meetings with economic advisors at the State and National levels who are decision makers on funding programs and paths that provide needed additional revenue for the Town.

We feel that the position of Director of Business Development, and in particular the performance of Bill Clark in the job, is very critical to the long-term economic survival of the Town. He is the face of the motto that the Town displays – “Every Business Counts.” Portsmouth only gets one chance to make a first impression to gain a new business; we need Bill Clark to continue making this best possible first impression. The PEDC considers that the retention of Bill Clark in his position of Director Business Development is exceptionally important to our work.

Richard Talipsky, Chair. Portsmouth EDC

Full disclosure: I have covered PEDC meetings over the past few years, and I have great respect for both the work they do and for Bill Clark. I would recommend you take 30 seconds and send the Council an e-mail before Tuesday — you can do it with one click with Kelly's online petition.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, Budget, PEDC

Patch: Portsmouth administrator Driscoll to step down

Portsmouth Town Administrator Bob Driscoll told the Town Council last night that he would not seek to renew his contract, according to Portsmouth Patch.

I first met Bob Driscoll when the Town Hall was shoehorned into the shopping plaza on East Main Road, back in 1991, and I have found him to be a diligent, thoughtful public servant who always looked out for the best interests of Portsmouth. Our town has benefited greatly from his years of dedicated service. Thank you, Bob.

I will have more to say about the forces on the Council and in the PCC who have maintained a steady drumbeat of criticism of Driscoll, but now is not the time. Suffice it to say that in the past six months, we have lost both our Superintendent and now our Town Administrator. No one in Portsmouth should be happy about this pattern.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council

Portsmouth councilors cross dotted line into ethical gray zone (update)

Pearl Street
Plat Map 20, Lot 285 (click to embiggen)

At last night's meeting of the Portsmouth Town Council, two sitting members discussed (and in at least one case voted on) a real estate question in which, according to public records, they appear to have a personal financial interest.

Let's get the actual news out of the way first: the Council is so dysfunctional that they couldn't even vote to go into executive session on wastewater litigation. We paid our two wastewater attorneys to sit in the audience while they nattered about dotted-line lots for two hours. Great show of respect for your legal team and excellent use of our taxpayer dollars. With Mike Buddemeyer absent, the vote was 3-3, with Judi Staven, Liz Pedro, and Paul "Transparancy" Kesson voting no. Is this really the best way to mount a vigorous defense against the DEM?

But the reeeeaallly interesting thing was that discussion of the dotted line lots.

Particularly common in Island Park and Common Fence Point, such lots are tax entities created to facilitate accounting, overlaid on recorded lot lines, Andre D'Andrea, the Town Solicitor, explained in a presentation to the Council. Prior to subdivision regulations, said D'Andrea, the owner of a piece of property could create arbitrary slices, some of which were not effectively buildable in isolation.

If someone purchased adjacent slices, they might build a house that straddled the line, or they might build their house on one and use the other for their septic system, effectively merging them "by use." In some cases, however, the slices may simply be unimproved yards, which could subsequently be sold off separately. And therein lies the financial impact.

Right now, owners of such dotted line entities receive one tax bill for the entire collection of property. "Assessments don't reflect the separate lots," said Tax Assessor David Dolce, who said that he had considered how to merge or fully split the parcels, but determined that, since it would need to be done for all properties in town at the same time, it would be difficult. "There are solutions to this," he said, "But they are complicated."

D'Andrea stressed that these were tax entities created for "convenience," by the assessor in order to send one tax bill for all connected lots. "The tax assessor, for his purposes, may have drawn a line," said D'Andrea, "But that does not change the underlying reality that someone created these lots and they exist."

And the tax implications could be significant. In the case of unmerged, buildable lots, current owners are not being taxed at the full market value.

Councilor Liz Pedro argued that with small lots that didn't meet current zoning requirements, the question was moot. "You can't consider them if you can't build on them," she said.

D'Andrea advised the Council that this was not the case, since a variance could be sought. "If the owner can demonstrate that this was not his fault," said D'Andrea, and constituted more than an "inconvenience," it could be sufficient grounds.

Which brings us to the ethical dotted line. About an hour into the discussion, Councilor Paul Kesson volunteered that he was the owner of one such property (Plat 5 Lot 24A, map). Kesson had asked Dolce whether he wouldn't need to ask the owner's permission to consolidate or split lots.

And according to Vision Appraisal, Councilor Liz Pedro is the owner of a lot at 0 Pearl St, next door to her address at 15 Pearl St, which appears on the Plat map with two dotted lines (Plat 20 Lot 285, map), a fact which she did not disclose during the meeting.

Can Pedro and Kesson argue that this falls under the "class exception" in the RI Ethics law? That's what allows Councilors to vote on property taxes even though they are taxpayers, because they pay the same as everyone else. But does owning a dotted line lot rise to the level of a "significant and definable class of persons" as required under the statute?

When I raised this issue at the meeting last night, and asked Council President Robicheau if any members of the Council should recuse, Kesson merely pushed his microphone aside and remained on the dais. If Pedro acknowledged in any way, I missed it. And while the vote last night was simply to task town officials with investigating the number of lots, the discussion leading up to that definitely touched on the economic impacts. I could not actually tell if Kesson voted.

Update: Portsmouth Patch reports that Kesson did, in fact vote, and invoked the class exception when questioned by the reporter.

Full disclosure: I own and live on a dotted-line lot which is irrevocably merged by use.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, ethics

Read the Patch coverage of last night's transfer station meeting

According to coverage at Portsmouth Patch, the Town Council last night spent two and a half hours yammering about the transfer station, and only managed to kick votes on the sticker fee and other changes down the road. Portsmouth Town Council Considers Pay-As-You-Go Trash Program

My favorite graf, with understated objective journalistic reserve: "The discussion went around in circles at times with council members repeating the same information before the meeting adjourned at 9:40 p.m. At one point late in the meeting, council President Joe Robicheau presented a motion, which had been voted upon nearly an hour earlier."

Ah, the PCC council in action. I'm glad I stayed home to watch the Pats. Thank you, Portsmouth Patch.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, Patch

New Portsmouth Council begins slogging through wastewater, tiptoes up to Open Meetings quagmire

PCC President confers with Council President
PCC President Larry Fitzmorris confers with Town Council President Joe Robicheau just before the Council meeting.

With over 30 residents in the chamber, the newly elected Portsmouth Town Council began their inaugural meeting on an auspicious note — five minutes before the meeting started, PCC President Larry Fitzmorris caucused with Council President Joe Robicheau as he sat on the dais. Anyone not get the picture yet?

And it just got better and better.

President Joe Robicheau established a new tradition of having the Town Clerk, Kathy Viera-Beaudoin, read each and every vote into the record. "The motion passed, unanimously." It may sound like transparancy, but halfway through the meeting, it was already beginning to feel like the new Council drinking game. (With carbonated non-adult beverages, of course; no suggestion or endorsement of excessive consumption is implied, nor should it be inferred.)

The first test was the reappointment of the Town Solicitor, Andre D'Andrea and the Town Prosecutor, Cort Chappel. Dame Judi Staven began to stake out her position as the Tailgunner "just vote no" replacenik by suggesting that it should go out to be advertised. "Chappell and D'Andrea can reapply," she said.

Although D'Andrea had been appointed by the previous Republican Council, it was the Democrats who came to his defense. "This is not a time to be changing players," said Mike Buddemeyer. "There are pressing legal matters ahead of us." Jim Seveney concurred. "Past practice has been to advertise the position only if there was an intention to replace," he said, stressing, "We have some unique challenges facing us." By a vote of 5-2 with Staven and Liz Pedro in the minority, both were rehired.

The Town Clerk read the result of the vote into the record. Take two sips.

Then the Council ground through the necessary liaison reappointments to various boards and committees. By the time they got to the Juvenile Hearing Board, the new "vote announcing" process had already gotten unwieldy. The Town Clerk announced the vote as unanimous, then the Council voted. Any time the Clerk gets the vote wrong, chug one soft drink.

And all that was before the REAL business began.

Sitting on the docket was scheduling interviews for the new Wastewater Management Commission, punted by the prior Council.

"I am not comfortable doing this as this time," said Staven. "I have a million questions." She expressed concern that she was unsure they were following the right course of action. "We may want to change the [wastewater] ordinance, who knows."

If there was any doubt about the Council's intent to delay and generally screw up the wastewater situation further, this should make their plan crystal clear.

PCC apparatchik Kathy Melvin took to the podium to warn the Council,"This is another move that's going to lock you into the situation." Then she raised questions about the qualifications of the applicants. "Thirteen people applied," she said. "We haven't had that many people come to meetings. I only heard of two — one qualified, other moderately qualified."

Let's leave aside for a moment whether Kathy Melvin is qualified to judge who is qualified. Was this laying the groundwork for the PCC bloc to launch preemptory challenges of all the applicants? We'll see. And what's this sudden concern about people who "come to meetings?" Where was this requirement when the PCC was endorsing candidates in the last election?

Despite Dame Judi's objections, the interviews were scheduled for December 13 at 6pm. The vote was 6-1 with Judi Staven opposed. One sip.

The next hour was a full-on grilling of engineer Pio Lombardo and attorney Christopher D'Ovidio, the team representing Portsmouth in the matter of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Notice of Violation (NOV), the action in which the town was fined and could be required to install sewers. Let's remember, the previous Council hemmed and hawed on this for two full years, which finally brought the DEM action down on the Town. The new Council has already shown themselves to be capable of the same brave level of churning inaction.

Attorney D'Ovidio provided an update on the recent status confeerence with DEM, where the wastewater management plan, prepared by Lombardo as an alternative to sewers, was rejected, which means that the action moves into the discovery phase in preparation for a full hearing. The process is very much like a civil trial, with these pre-hearing conferences being opportunities for the two sides to attempt to reach agreement, and the DEM rejection of the plan amounted to them declining a settlement offer, according to D'Ovidio. But he remained hopeful, he said, that things could change if the town could present something with more detail.

"We're trying to provide a credible alternative to sewers," he said, showing the binder containing the work done by Lombardo. "At this juncture, they are not interested in considering this plan at this level of detail until there is something more for them to sink their teeth into."

So how did the Council support the team mounting our defense against DEM?

"If they're not going to consider this, why are we moving forward with it," asked Dame Judi.

"In order for us to be able to prevail, we need to have competent evidence that says to the DEM, 'You're wrong," said D'Ovidio. "We have a competent expert who has done a granular examination of every lot. That's why we need to proceed."

"Are we going down a path that's going to fail anyway," Judi continued.

The price of failure, D'Ovidio noted, would be a $60M sewer system.

Lombardo stressed that their work would provide a body of facts that the DEM did not have based on their reliance on a study from 2003. "We're going to provide lot by lot detail," he said. "What we're going to be doing, for all practical purposes, is the 10% design level. And the difference between 10 years ago and now, there are more tools in the toolbox."

Meaty, important questions. What did new Councilor Paul Kesson want to ask?

"What have we spent with you, Mr. D'Ovidio," said Kesson. (He didn't know offhand.)

Liz Pedro had a similar "gotcha" question. "Mr. D'Ovidio,when did you get the DEM file?" When he replied October 12, Pedro pounced. "But we hired you in April!"

"I wasn't retained to look at the file," he replied.

This kind of nitpicking is fine when you're a PCC partisan sniping from the sidelines, but is this really the level of engagement with the core issues we expect from a sitting Town Council?

Then Pedro went after stormwater, citing a memo from DEM. "Over and over, I see stormwater, stormwater, stormwater," she said. "It's a stormwater issue that they're hanging their hat on. why have we not followed through with stormwater ordinance that we already have. Shouldn't we start with the obvious — the tie ins we already know exist."

Lombardo said that the work was in fact proceeding on both tracks, stormwater and individual septic systems analysis, and he pointed out that the two were connected.

"Stormwater is the smoking gun," said Lombardo, "The conduit for malfunctioning septic systems."

But Pedro had a better idea. "Why are we not starting with what we know — storm drains." And, she continued, there was a list of some addresses with suspected connections, and the existing stormwater ordinance gives the Department of Public Works authority in that area. "Why are we not focusing on that."

"We don't believe the issue can be resolved by either one independently," said Lombardo.

Then the PCC bloc got to the nut of their argument.

"We're going to spend a lot of money and find out it's just illicit hookups and animal waste," said Dame Judi.

Town Administrator Bob Driscoll tried a note of rationality. "The problem is that stormwater drains pick up everything that flows into them. The stormwater system may be working perfectly, but will fail because (household) systems are not containing the waste. We can't go to 13 houses and pull a tap and solve our problem. Until we fix the ISDSs, we're not going to have clean stormwater."

Councilor Buddemeyer pointed out the obvious. "We've hired experts to defend us. The longer we wrangle with them, the less they're defending us."

And then...and then... PCC President Larry Fitzmorris himself took to the podium.

"I have a question about the NOV," he said, noting that it contained an allegation of a violation at XX Foo Avenue. Unlike Larry, I'm not going to mention the address; if you want to know, go listen to the tape. "I have received a copy of a letter from homeowner saying that the water running off the lot is from the sump pump. Is there any evidence that DEM sampled water, has town ever sampled water?"

Attorney D'Ovidio replied. "Generally speaking, each and every factual assertion in the NOV we are challenging," he said. "We're making DEM support every fact. Including proof that XX Foo Ave was discharging. Rest assured, as my client, that we're challenging each factual allegation. In addition, we're gathering our own evidence."

But that didn't satisfy the PCC President. "My question was whether the place was sampled or not. Nobody in the town has sampled the water yet. XX Foo Ave is the principal charge, he said. "We should sample the water immediately."

D'Ovidio disagreed. "It's not the principal charge," he said. And then, he went on to put a giant stake through Larry's heart. "Why would we test it? It's their burden of proof. Follow me?"

Larry sat down.

What a rookie mistake. Ordering the Council to collect a piece of evidence that can be demanded during discovery? Boy, I thought the PCC were supposed to be experts with giant brains?

And in one final note, the Council decided to create a "Joint Health Care Review Commission" with the school committee to study health care costs.

"Jonathan Harris has a lot of background in this," said Robicheau, and asked him to speak. People looked around, but Harris had already left.

Resident Andrew Kelly asked the Council if the meetings would be open.

"It's a commission," said Dame Judi. "The majority would be two. It's four people," she said, including participation from the Council and school committee and the two finance directors. She was concerned that if it fell under open meetings that two people couldn't talk.

"In a commission of four, quorum would be three," Town Solicitor D'Andrea pointed out, adding that in a prior Council they had posted meetings for a group of only three.

"I'm not trying to get around the Open Meetings Law," said Staven.

That was the point at which I got up and went to the podium. Robicheau, however, quickly said that the meetings would be posted and called for a vote before I was recognized. Then he asked me if I had a question. Since the question had already been voted on, I declined.

And anyway, I did not have a question. I had an observation: When your PCC bloc runs on "transparancy" and in your first meeting, your vice-president begins a sentence "I'm not trying to get around the Open Meetings Law," you are not, in my opinion, getting off to a very good start.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, PCC

PCC touts Robicheau, omits others in RISC newsletter

Transparancy is the new objectivaty.

In today's newsletter from the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC), the state-wide anti-tax group with which the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC) is affiliated, a story by Larry Fitzmorris on the recent election as Council President of Joe Robicheau highlights his PCC membership, while the affiliations of other Councilors with the PCC goes unmentioned.

Robicheau is described as "a long time member of the PCC and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition." However, the rest of the bloc which elected him is described only as "Republicans."

I find this interesting, given that all four of them acknowledged their sometime affiliation with the PCC during the candidate forum prior to the election, as reported in Portsmouth Patch (there were two sessions, so the links below go to two stories)

By a show of hands, have any of you ever been or currently involved with the PCC?
Staven and Robicheau raised their hands.

Audience question: Just by show of hands, have you ever been affiliated or are currently affiliated with the PCC?
Both Pedro and Kesson raised their hands.

The PCC endorsed all four of these Councilors. Why on earth wouldn't they mention that in their puff piece for the RISC newsletter?

Is this the kind of transparancy [sic] we can expect from our new Council majority?

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, PCC