Top Council Decisions of 2013 – Part One
As the year has come to a close, I thought I’d put together a list of items which were significant and/or controversial. As I began the list, I thought about eliminating any decisions which were decided unanimously. But that felt a little unfair. It would exclude some very important issues, and would definitely omit a few noteworthy city successes. I have been openly critical of our shortcomings, and so it’s only fair that we highlight some great successes too.
So I expanded the list, and now it’s too big to post all at once. So I will break it into thirds, and post incrementally.
I’m hoping for feedback – positive, negative, whatever. We really only get widespread feedback every two years: in the form of elections. And we are at the middle of that cycle. (Note to interested council candidates: Election Day is only ten months away; declaration of candidacy is only five months away.)
But in the meantime, let me know where you think we got things right, where we got things wrong, and what you think was the most controversial decision of 2013. And let me know if you feel that we missed any opportunities.
I’m hoping that you’ll share your thoughts and comments in detail. If you are so inclined, put “Best Decision:___________” or “Worst Decision:___________” or “Most Controversial Topic:_________” or even “Missed Opportunity:__________” – and fill in the blank.
I think this feedback will help us all do a better job in 2014.
After we’ve covered all 12 months, maybe Patch can create a poll for best and worst decisions of 2013.
In a somewhat chronological order, I respectfully offer the following items from the first four months of 2013 (with my own commentary):
January 2013 – April 2013
1. Seeking PILOTS from Newport Non-profits
Sponsor: Mike Farley Vote 6-0 (unanimous)
In Favor: Farley, Winthrop, Napolitano, Camacho, McLaughlin, Leonard
Recused: Neville (Newport Housing Authority affiliation)
One of the first issues we tackled was the question of non-profit contribution. Having observed the negotiations between non-profits and their host communities in Smithfield and Providence, we hoped to find some success here in Newport.
We already host three very responsible non-profits in Newport Hospital, Salve Regina University and the Newport Restoration Foundation. All three participate in voluntary cooperative initiatives whereby they pay taxes on some of their buildings. In addition, the state pays PILOT funds to the city for land owned by tax-exempt hospitals and universities.
However, several non-profits have little or no voluntary agreement, and generate little or no state PILOT revenue, including the Preservation Society of Newport County and the Housing Authority of Newport.
In an effort to encourage some movement on this complex issue, I drafted a resolution calling on the City Manager to identify potential sources of additional revenue and engage them in negotiation. I specifically asked the CM to work with the Newport Housing Authority.
The resolution passed unanimously 6-0 (Neville recused).
Unfortunately, the City Manager has been unable or unwilling to identify and negotiate PILOT agreements. So nothing has been achieved on this point, but I am optimistic that we will see some results in the New Year.
2. Transferring Streetscape Funds from the Lower Thames Project to the Lower Broadway Project
Sponsor: City Manager Vote: Passed 5-2
In Favor: Winthrop, Neville, Napolitano, Camacho, McLaughlin
Opposed: Leonard, Farley opposed
In January, the City Manager recommended transferring $450,000 which had been earmarked for improvements on Lower Thames Street, over to the Lower Broadway project to cover the cost of light fixtures. Obviously, the Lower Thames business community was disappointed in this decision; and this disappointment led to the formation of the Lower Thames Streetscape working group.
3. Reducing the number of candidate signatures needed from 200 to 50.
Sponsor: Jeanne Napolitano, amended by Mike Farley Vote: Passed 5-2
In Favor: Winthrop, Napolitano, Farley, Camacho, Leonard
Opposed: Neville, McLaughlin
In February, Councilors Napolitano and Camacho submitted a resolution asking the RI Legislature to reduce the number of signatures needed for at-large city council candidates and school committee candidates from 200 to 100. The measure was initially defeated 3-3 (Neville, Farley and Leonard opposed, Winthrop absent).
But in March, I worked with Councilor Napolitano to find some common ground. I admired her effort to encourage more candidates, and so I proposed a compromise to meet Councilor Napolitano halfway. I proposed having at large candidates and school committee candidates only submit 100 signatures, as a compromise between her goal of 50, and the state requirement of 200.
I enjoyed working on that matter; and best of all, the RI legislature adopted our amended proposal. City-wide candidates are now only required to gather 100 signatures. Hopefully, this will result in more candidates running for office locally.
4. Preserving the Ruggles Reefbreak.
Sponsor: Mike Farley Vote 7-0 (unanimous)
By the end of the spring, our congressional delegation had come through with the funding necessary to make repairs to the Cliffwalk following Superstorm Sandy. A thorough plan was developed for the repairs and it was approved by our Cliffwalk Commission.
But by the end of March, there were concerns that the DOT proposal included the installation of two huge temporary stone jetties, which would effectively destroy all of the iconic Ruggles surfbreaks for at least a year, but possibly permanently. I began asking for support from council members, but all seemed reluctant to second-guess the Cliffwalk Commission’s approval of the project.
So on April 1st, I submitted a resolution asking the DOT to review the installation of jetties. In the days and weeks that followed, Sid Abruzzi of Water Brothers, and Dave McLaughlin and Chris Heaton of Clean Ocean Access continued to get the word out about the importance of the legendary Ruggles Reef Break. Eventually the resolution passed 7-0, asking the state DOT to remove the jetties from the project.
Incredibly, the DOT Director Michael Lewis became personally engaged in this effort. He did a great job finding the right balance between environmental concerns, recreational concerns and the city's need to conduct efficient and effective repairs to the Cliffwalk. Director Lewis oversaw a workable solution after meeting at City Hall with members of the Newport surfing community and the environmental community. All told, it was an impressive effort guided by a dedicated group of local individuals who love the water.
5. Adding 25½ Burdick Ave as a Subsidized/Low Income Housing Property.
Sponsor: City Manager Vote: Initially Failed 3-3, Passed on Reconsideration
In Favor: Neville, Napolitano, McLaughlin
Opposed: Farley, Camacho, Leonard
On Reconsideration: Passed 6-1 (Farley opposed)
In late spring, Church Community Housing asked the city to borrow money to purchase 25½ Burdick Ave, with the goal of setting it aside as subsidized housing.
I opposed this initiative because Newport already has the highest percentage of subsidized affordable housing in the entire state at nearly 19%. The rest of the state has less than 10% subsidized affordable housing. It seemed to me, that if it remained on the market longer, the price would have continued to drop, enabling an ordinary family to purchase it without government money. I felt that since Newport already has the highest percentage of subsidized housing, Church Community Housing should focus their efforts on expanding subsidized housing in other non-compliant communities, so that Newport is not the only community shouldering this burden.
Others opposed the request because the Church Community Housing deal comes with many restrictions, including the fact they are only re-selling the house to a borrower, but keeping the land themselves and renting it back to the homeowner on a 99-year lease. It was also opposed because the new owner would be restricted from selling the house at a profit.
The motion initially failed 3-3, as Mayor Winthrop was absent, and Councilor McLaughlin changed his own vote to allow him to re-present the issue at the next hearing.
However, the money was released anyway from the city’s CDBG funds. When the motion was reconsidered at the next hearing, Mayor Winthrop noted that we needed to approve the resolution to “get our money back.” The resolution passed by a vote of 6-1. (Farley opposed); and so the number of subsidized housing units increased by one.
6. Urging the Legislature to Implement Major Gun Restrictions
Sponsor: Jeanne Napolitano, Justin McLaughlin Vote: Failed 3-4
In Favor: Neville, Napolitano, McLaughlin
Opposed: Winthrop, Farley, Camacho, Leonard
After a mild resolution had been passed in February which urged an increase in gun safety, Councilor Napolitano drafted a second resolution which urged passage of nine (9) major pieces of gun control legislation at the state level. The legislation supported included banning the sale, transfer or manufacture of all semiautomatic weapons; banning sale and manufacture of all high capacity cartridges; mandating national background checks; eliminating local jurisdiction handgun permitting; creating various boards and task forces; and enhancing penalties for violations of existing laws.
The hearing on the resolution generated a great deal of enthusiasm from all over the political spectrum, and certainly was controversial.
Ultimately, the resolution failed 3-4.
7. Creating a Tour Bus Taxation/Regulation Framework
Sponsor: City Manager Vote: Passed 5-1
In Favor: Winthrop, Neville, Napolitano, McLaughlin, Camacho, Leonard
The City Manager requested the authority to implement local regulation of local tour buses. The City Manager acknowledged that the primary purpose of the proposal was to tax local businesses such as Viking Tours. I felt that it was counterproductive, and that adding local regulation to federal and state regulation was more than a little unfair to a small, family-owned, local employer.
8. Accepting Grant for Modular Cliffwalk Bathrooms - April
Sponsor: City Manager Vote 7-0 (unanimous)
In April, the council voted to accept a grant to cover the cost of modular bathrooms for the Cliffwalk. Although the units have not yet been installed, the grant was accepted. This project, initiated by an earlier council, will significantly improve the Cliffwalk experience for residents and visitors.
Let us know what you think.