Charter Review

Portsmouth Council goes zombie on Charter Review

Carceller at Council
CRC Chair Sal Carceller presents to the Council of the Living Dead

The Portsmouth Town Council, at last night's meeting, received Chairman Sal Carceller's report from the Charter Review Committee (CRC) proposing amendments to the Town Charter, and scheduled a public workshop for 7pm on June 18.

With the obligatory 5Ws and an H out of the way, I can now explain what actually happened.

If you are a fan of George Romero's films, you will understand that his "Dead" series is not really about zombies at all: it is a large, evolving metaphor about life in America, where the zombies play the role of the uncomprehending mass of the ignorant doomed, among whom (sometimes flawed) heroes struggle to maintain niches of sanity and autonomy. "Night" was about the 60s, "Dawn" critiqued brainless consumerism of the 80s, "Day" skewered the Reagan-era military-industrial complex, and "Land" did much to anticipate the rising class consciousness of the oughts.

But nothing in that filmography can fully prepare you for Portsmouth's Council of the Living Dead. It is as if Romero's zombies from "Land" have gotten just smart enough to run for office and now sit on the dais, grunting, shrieking, and shedding odd chunks of flesh. Let me be very clear that I am talking about the PCC majority comprising President Joe Robicheau, Vice-President Judi Staven, Liz Pedro, and Paul Kesson. Republican Keith Hamilton and Democrats Mike Buddemeyer and Jim Seveney play the roles of the heroes, trapped inside the mall, fending off the undead hordes.

Before they even got to the agenda item on the CRC, the Council majority had clearly staked out the zombie high ground. In a discussion over support for the RI Ethics Commission, Pedro worried that they might use any stronger power against General Assembly members whose crimes were "unintentional." (Hmm. Could she have been thinking of any representative in particular?) Then, Staven presented the Council with a letter of rebuke to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) over parking signage at the foot of Willow Lane. Despite being told by Ed Lopes, the attorney for the Carnegie Marina, that the letter contained errors of fact, the zombie majority voted to send it anyway.

Then it was time for the presentation of the CRC report by Sal Carceller, who chaired of the year-long effort by 30 citizens to analyze the Town Charter and discuss, debate, and propose amendments. Carceller stressed the broad participation: "We had all kinds of people from Portsmouth," he said, including Republicans, Democrats, PCC members, business people, retirees, teachers, parents, a cross-section of the town. And the group, he said, worked thoughtfully, discussed the proposals from the PCC which prompted the formation of the CRC, and approved one of them. They came back with 13 changes, he said, five brand-new bits of language and eight tweaks to existing language. He asked the Council to respect the work of the committee. "We want the Council to seriously support all 13 changes."

And that was it for the forces of rationality.

Robicheau opened by saying the Council would not vote on any changes, but rather hold "a workshop." And that move was enough to open the door, the classic beat in zombie films where the glass breaks and the ravenous dead storm up to the podium in search of live brains.

And nowhere was that search for a pound of flesh more keenly felt than in the remarks of former PCC Vice-President Joe Lorenz. He had three charter proposals that hadn't been approved, and he wanted a second bite at the apple. The CRC membership, he asserted was "29 Democrats and 3 Republicans," leaving the audience to draw the obvious inference.

And the Council majority not only listened politely, but basically turned over the meeting to him. They allowed him to introduce a colleague to present his amendment that failed, rather than have him recognized by the Council President. Then they listened to these two jabber and then asked them to send along their failed amendments to the clerk for discussion at the workshop.

Carceller and CRC members tried to reason with the Council. Carceller said this risked confusing the issues, since all the proposals had been thoroughly discussed, and would now be presented back to the Council without the context. Member Jhodi Redlich articulated what several CRC members were thinking: "This makes me feel as if all the work we did is discounted." And member Len Katzman was more direct. "There were thousands of [person-hours] by the group, and no item was defeated without hours of debate," he said. "You may as well not have a CRC."

Ah, but this seems like the zombie strategy all along. Despite the fact that a Republican council appointed the CRC, it was clear from the start that the PCC didn't like the makeup. That complaint about too many Democrats was voiced by PCC director Kathy Melvin at the first meeting. But with a PCC-friendly majority on the Council, why worry about the process? No matter that a duly-appointed committee of 30 citizens worked for a year on a set of recommendations. We can shamble to the podium and have a little chat, zombie to zombie, and our dead charter amendments will rise from the grave and seek the flesh of the living.

If you want to support the work of your fellow citizens, I urge you to come to the workshop on June 18. Our town charter is too important to be left to the zombies.

Full disclosure: My wife and I were both appointed members of the CRC. I was thinking about the Walking Dead and the Cranberries the entire time I was writing this.

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, Charter Review, CRC

Portsmouth Charter Review Committee returns recommendations

The Portsmouth Charter Review Committee (PCRC), established to consider four specific amendments proposed by the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC) as well as an overall analysis of the Town's guiding document, submitted their final report to the Town Council today, according to an e-mail from PCRC secretary Mark Katzman. You can download it here (70k PDF). The report was submitted by Chair Sal Carceller on behalf of the 28-member committee which has been meeting every month since early 2011.

According to Katzman, the Town Council is scheduled to consider the report at the meeting of May 29. They will decide which of the proposed amendments from the PCRC would be placed on the November, 2012 ballot.

The full report has the detail, but here are the high-level recommendations:

  • Establish an eight-year Charter review cycle
  • Provide a mechanism for the Town Council to discipline its members
  • Require the Town Administrator to produce an annual "state of the town" report
  • Reinstate the possiblility of appointing a Town Engineer
  • Create a Municipal Court
  • Remove the requirement that the Department of Public Works Director be a resident
  • Allow for the creation of a Parks and Recreation department
  • Move the date for the submission of the school budget to the Town about one week later
  • Fix an incorrect reference to RI General Law in the Planning Board section of the Charter
  • Require yearly advertising for Planning and Zoning Board positions
  • Protect open space and recreation areas from sale or leasing without voter consent

For those who recall the origin of this committee, it is worth quoting from the conclusion of the report at length:

[W]e note that not long before the creation of the PCRC, and as an apparent stimulant for the Council’s creation of the PCRC, the Council had received four proposals for charter changes from the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens group, and one group of proposals from the Lower Glen Farm Preservation Committee. Because of that history, this report will conclude by specifically addressing these five proposals:

  1. Proposal for a Charter rule to require review of the charter every six years. [Previously submitted to the Council by the PCC]. As cited in this report, this matter was considered and a decision made to approve a change to Charter Section 103 to require the formation of a Charter Review Committee every eight years.
  2. Proposal to eliminate “straight party lever voting” from local elections. [Previously submitted to the Council by the PCC]. This proposal was rejected. There was considerable debate about how such a proposal would be worded, and concern about what the Town is authorized to do versus what election matters are solely within the authority of the State of RI.
  3. Proposal to add to the charter a procedure allowing for recall of local elected officials. [Previously submitted to the Council by the PCC]. The proposal was debated at length and rejected.
  4. Proposal for two-year terms for School Committee members. [Previously submitted to the Council by the PCC]. The proposal was rejected. Of concern was that its adoption would prohibit staggered terms of office, and that the educational aspects of the office is sufficiently complex that continuity on the School Committee was needed in order to serve the best interests of the town.
  5. Proposed changes to section 912, Property Transfer. [Previously submitted to the Council by The Lower Glen Farm Preservation Committee]. The proposals submitted resulted in the approval of suggested changes to section 912, as noted in detail in this report.

That last item is the change to the open space language that tightens up the existing restriction on sale of land over two acres.

Full disclosure: Both my wife and I are appointed members of the PCRC. If you want to want to ensure that the Council gives appropriate consideration to the work the the two dozen citizens on the committee have done over the past year, I'd ask you to read the report and think about attending the May 29 meeting.

Localblogging, 02871, Charter Review

Portsmouth charter review begins amid (PCC) partisan rancor

The first meeting of the Portsmouth Charter Review Committee last night was marked by partisan accusations and suggestions for culling the membership from the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC).

It was purely an organizational meeting, with the only actions being the setting of the first working meeting for Wednesday, Jan 19, and the selection of a temporary moderator, George Easley. But that didn't keep the PCC faction from objecting.

Kathy Melvin, who was a director of the PCC in 2009, according to corporate records at the RI Secretary of State, complained, early in the meeting, about so many "Democrats" on the committee.

Current PCC director Joe Lorenz asked the interim moderator, Town Administrator Bob Driscoll, about Tiverton's charter review committee. When told it only had nine members, he questioned the possible effectiveness of the size of Portsmouth's group. "When the world is telling us something..." he said, referring to Tiverton's committee.

Questions were also raised by PCC members about the remit of the committee. While it is possible to construe these as good-faith questions, the context might lead one to infer that they will attempt to steer the group in the direction of the five proposed charter changes their president, Larry Fitzmorris, brought to the council.

For a organization which yells so loudly about the will of the people, such distrust of the good intentions of a group of volunteers was, to this observer, offensive, if not entirely surprising.

Anyway, it was helpful to discover that the PCC considers Tiverton to be "the world." Now we know just how far they cast their nets for information.

Full disclosure: I am an appointed member of the Charter Review Committee and a Democrat.

Localblogging, 02871, PCC, Charter Review