Town Council Meeting Summary - March 2019

My friends and family know me well enough to know that I tend to act decisively and expediently when it’s time to take action. They warned I’d have trouble with the velocity of government. This month’s meeting tested those warnings.

Though the pace can be frustrating, I understand the need to take measured steps. We are acting on behalf of all Barrington’s residents; those who live here now and those who will in the future. And fortunately, we are heading in the right direction, which is one half of velocity. Go team!

(The flying turtle in the blog header is a joke of self-deprecation; recognizing that we are moving slowly, but understanding it’s better than moving incorrectly.)

On the advice of my editor (I call him Dad), I have included an executive summary. I could trim this down, but do not want to limit my color commentary, because for me these recaps are a big part of my efforts in being a transparent public servant.

Executive Summary:

All five members, present and accounted for, with Councilor Joy Hearn participating in her first Town Council meeting.

You can attend any and all meetings of the Committee on Appropriations. I encourage everybody to attend at least one so that you can understand and influence our town’s spending priorities for the coming year. Tuesday nights.

We filled an alternate spot on the Parks & Rec Commission and appointed its first-ever student representative.

The Bristol County Water Authority gave a report, and they are continuing to develop a second pipeline as a backup source of potable water to mitigate a potential threat.

We discussed a report on Short-Term Rentals (like Airbnb), as the topic has been a source of complaints to members of the Council. We referred a report to the Economic Development Commission and the Planning Board to determine if there is something formal Barrington should enact related to them.

We established an Ad Hoc Advisory Athletic Field Committee, on which I will serve with Councilor Boyajian.

We approved a resolution bringing the town’s fees and fines up to present-day market rates (many fees were reduced or removed; increases are still at the low end of the market), and we tabled the vote on one section; field fees. I go into length about this below.

We approved an ordinance allowing the town to issue BYOB permits to restaurants that do not have a liquor license, and we introduced to new ordinances that will be up for public hearing and a vote in April.

Read on for my full recap, starting with the usual “disclaimer.”

If I make reference to any letters, ordinances, or the like, links to each can be found in the official agenda, posted here, under “Council Agenda” for the March 4th meeting. (NB: this is not a substitute for the official minutes of the meeting, and represents my personal recollection, interpretation and opinion of events. Official meeting minutes will be formally approved/amended at the next Council meeting, on April 1, and posted online for public review.)

This was my first meeting with the Council at full strength, with Councilor Joy Hearn filling the vacant seat. I’m looking forward to working with her and benefiting from the depth of experience she brings.

Following the Pledge of Allegiance, as always, Town Manager Jim Cunha started things off with announcements. The Committee on Appropriations will meet every Tuesday night in March, at 7:00 PM in the Middle School presentation room. If you are interested in learning about -- and having a say in -- Barrington’s budget (and your property taxes), I encourage you to attend. The agendas will be posted on clerkbase (the link above) in advance of each meeting.

It’s important to note that the town’s budget, proposed to and voted on by all Barrington registered voters who attend the Financial Town Meeting in May, is not the Town Council, Town Manager, District Superintendent, or School Committee dictating what we must spend. Recommendations are made by the Town and District to the Committee on Appropriations, who synthesizes those proposals with information shared by the administrations, boards and anybody from town who chooses to use this opportunity to be involved in the coming year’s spending priorities.

There will be a Rabies Clinic, Sunday, March 10, at 10:00 AM. You can attend to have your pet(s) vaccinated for $10 (cash). Your out-of-town friends, family and pets are welcome to attend, as well.

During the Consent Agenda portion, I asked that the Correspondence section be pulled out so that we could discuss it separately. There were two letters in it I wanted to address. One was from the East Bay Chamber of Commerce, inviting a member of the Council to attend their board meetings each month. I volunteered to attend. We also received an invitation from the City of Newport to participate in their annual St Patrick’s Day parade. I asked if we could share the invitation with the Police and Fire Department Honor Guards; if they want to attend. TM Cunha shared that he participated many times while in the Navy, and that it was a great event.

The first isolated item on the agenda was committee appointments. We interviewed two additional people for the vacancy on the Parks & Recreation Commission (one had already been interviewed at the February meeting). Not knowing the needs of the committee and its working dynamic, I approved the recommendation made by Councilor Boyajian, who is the liaison to the Commission. In addition to the appointment of somebody to that alternate spot, we appointed the first student representative to the P&R Commission.

We then received the monthly report from the Bristol County Water Authority. They continue to work diligently to establish a suitable secondary source of potable water for the East Bay. This is especially important now, as there have been problems with the water tower on Fountain St, highlighting our potential vulnerability. The BCWA is also working to improve communications with customers throughout the county and its working relationship with East Providence continues to improve.

Following that report, we then formally appointed Councilor Hearn as the liaison to the committees with which she’ll work.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a constituent who shared concerns about a neighbor who was renting their home out as a short-term rental (using Airbnb, or something like it; brand not relevant). The temporary tenants and frequency of new people in and out of the home created a variety of nuisances. Upon consultation with TM Cunha and our town solicitor, we learned that 1) there are no regulations in place in Barrington related to this, and 2) a group at URI recently conducted research and compiled an advisory brief on short-term rentals and how municipalities are or could be managing them.

We discussed the issue and the priorities around it, and referred the report to our Economic Development Commission and Planning Board for a closer look and recommendations.

The next two items on the agenda are the source of the “test” I mentioned in the opening of this article. The fields issue -- quality and fees -- has been a hot-button topic the last several months. I’ll skip much of the background, as many of the opinions and issues were covered in a prior article. We spent nearly two hours of the meeting discussing two topics. The first was the establishment of an Ad Hoc Advisory Athletic Fields Committee to assess the status of our fields and make recommendations for improving quality and access, and the evaluate in a comprehensive way if, where, and how to install an artificial turf field. The second was the proposed field use fee increase, as part of the comprehensive review of Barrington’s Fees and Fines schedule.

There were public comments relating to the new committee. People are concerned that we have already formed committees and conducted studies (the most recent was 2001), and we are still without a detailed plan. While that is true, Councilor Boyajian pointed out that the last study resulted in two new field spaces and other enhancements; affirming that there is value in going through this exercise again.

I strongly believe in the value of this, and had begun working informally on advancing a collaboration like this, with involvement from the School Committee and plans to reach out to DPW, league leadership and others. Formalizing it will give more weight to the recommendations of the committee.

We spent a lot of time discussing the composition. Council President Mike Carroll’s proposal included a specific listing of representatives. It would be 14 people, with two each from the Town Council and School Committee, three members from Parks & Rec, one from the Conservation Commission and one from the community-at-large; along with five people to be appointed by the School Committee.

I expressed concern at both the total size (too many people) and the limited opportunity created with only one open position to be assigned by the Council. I feel strongly that league leadership should have a voice and vote on this committee, because they know best what is needed in terms of the end result. The prescription limits us to at most one league official, which also precludes any member of the community who is not already part of one of these groups.

Vice President Kate Weymouth wanted there to be an even weight of members from the Conservation Commission to balance the three members from Parks & Rec.

In the end, the composition that was proposed is how the motion was made. I felt that even though I was unhappy with the prescribed composition, voting in favor of the establishment of the committee was the right decision to secure improvements to our fields. VP Weymouth voted against the motion, believing firmly in the importance of the composition and concern that it is setting the committee up for a predetermined outcome. The motion passed 4-1. A subsequent motion passed unanimously to appoint Councilor Boyajian as the Co-Chair (with a member of the School Committee serving as the other Co-Chair) and me as the other TC representative on the committee. The remainder of the committee will be determined at the April 1st Council meeting; and then some time after that, we’ll have our first meeting.

Then it came time to discuss the fees (we actually discussed all the other items on the Fee and Fine schedule before coming back to the fees, but I’m keeping the two field issues together for this ercap). I had asked President Carroll if I could speak at the start of the discussion, to explain my rationale behind an amendment to the Town Manager’s proposal. That proposal was to increase field fees charged to the youth sports leagues from $10 per athlete per year to $25 per athlete per season. This would change the fees leagues pay from $10 to $50 for their two-season athletes, and was estimated to bring the total fees from approximately $20,000 to $70,000. This was proposed to the Council by Manager Cunha in an effort to find better balance between fees and taxes in covering the more than $160,000 cost of maintaining our athletic fields.

My proposed amendment was to keep the fee at $10, but apply it to each season. I also proposed an offsetting change; charging no fee to the leagues for the youngest groups who play on fields that aren’t truly athletic fields (like the roadside at Haines Park or the portion of Chianese Field along Prince’s Hill Ave). This would keep the overall costs to the leagues fairly similar to the past couple years, but it would better align with the purpose of the fees, as I view them.

I first wanted to clear up issues surrounding poor communication on this topic. There had been a lot of back and forth regarding how other municipalities handle this, including a Barrington Times article with the headline “Barrington is the only town charging fees for youth fields.” Though the facts of the article are accurate, it is a misleading title and leaves out some information that would help create a full understanding. Every municipality charges something to some of its leagues. By the research, Barrington is the only town that has a standard fee across all ages and abilities of all leagues. Some towns charge only for the older, more elite leagues; but they charge much more than $10/athlete. Other towns don’t charge a monetary fee, but require “sweat equity,” with the leagues maintaining and painting the fields.

I’ve never been one to cave to peer pressure, so the arguments of what others are or aren’t doing are not particularly persuasive to me. That said, at $25/athlete/season, I believe we’d likely be the most expensive -- which is only okay if our fields are among the best. They are not.

Here are the highlights of my comments about the rationale for my proposal:

  • As a town, we should be investing in providing quality athletic and recreational fields. They serve as a community benefit and provide the opportunity for youth to have well-rounded development.

  • It is not aligned with our values as a town to have our youth leagues shoulder the burden of achieving quality fields.

  • Adding more money to standard field maintenance will not improve the quality of the fields. We need more fields so that they are not overused.

  • Unlike the use of a playground, library, beach, or other facilities in town; when the leagues use athletic fields, they exclude everybody who is not a member of the league; including the taxpayers who are investing in the fields.

  • The leagues’ heavy use of the fields adds significantly to the cost to maintain the fields, even at the status quo level.

The combination of these factors and views informed my suggestion. I recall three other Councilors stated they agreed in general with my proposal; holding it at $10, and charging for multiple seasons. Each shared their own views as to why, with Councilor Boyajian seeming to be most aligned with my rationale. He put it quite eloquently, so I’ll share his analogy. He compared the town to a landlord, renting the field to the leagues as tenants. He noted they are good tenants, and also that we aren’t renting prime real estate. Adding we should not increase the fee before investing in the property.

President Carroll shared an amendment that would waive the fee for any athlete who is receiving a scholarship. All Councilors are in agreement here, but among ourselves and with discussion from league leadership in attendance, we got into the weeds of the details regarding how to craft the language.

We also got into the weeds of the details of how to address the proposed fees for tournaments. We learned again there was miscommunication and lack of understanding how this had been done in the past and how any change would impact things once implemented.

As a result of the lack of clarity around the tournament fees and scholarship waiver, we removed the field use fees section from the resolution to change the Fee and Fine Schedule, and we plan to address it again at our April 1st meeting. It is my expectation that my proposal will be where we land on this. Should the vote ultimately be on anything with a higher price tag for our youth sports leagues, I would need compelling new information in order to vote yes.

That brings us back to the other fee and fine changes proposed to the Council for approval. The reason for the changes, as Manager Cunha explained, is that our fees had not undergone a comprehensive review and adjustment in several years. Over the past 18 months, the department heads evaluated the costs that go into providing the services related to the fees and compared our status to our peer group to determine market rates.

My proposed amendment included a few changes here, as well. First, I wanted to clarify that the fee listed as a beach pass is actually a parking pass. This is already the reality, but the language did not indicate it. We all agreed to add the word “parking.” Wahoo!

The building permit fees were proposed to increase, and this was a learning opportunity for me. I looked at it as a percentage from what the fees were, and saw that it was a substantial increase (40% and more). I proposed spreading the increases over three years to ensure that we would not stifle new construction. It was pointed out by the building inspector, and Councilor Hearn, that the fees are still low in the market, that the valuation structure still provides a low valuation compared to the actual value of nearly all new construction in Barrington, and that a lot of work goes into the issuing of each approval. Councilor Boyajian also pointed out that we’ve spent a lot of time recently concerned with field availability and lack of space; and new construction is a direct contributor to that problem.

I withdrew that part of my proposed amendment.

Next, despite my overwhelming preference for dogs, I proposed the removal of the cat license requirement, and related fee. I understand there to be no strong reason for why a license was needed, so I saw no reason to charge a fee. I was hoping somebody would suggest removal of the dog license, so that Madam Wrinklebottom and Fenway Papelpug could live “off the grid,” but to no avail!

I had initially proposed the removal of our Concealed Carry Permit fee. By state law, municipalities “shall issue” a CCP to a resident who meets certain criteria; or the office of the Attorney General “may issue” one. The requisite fee is $40 from either issuing body, and given the language, I felt it was in the Town’s best interest to have the AG handle this. Upon further discussion with our solicitor and Manager Cunha, I came to learn that through a RI Supreme Court ruling, towns are able to set their own criteria. As such, I was in agreement with Manager Cunha that it is actually in our best interest if Chief DeCrescenzo makes this determination. I asked that the Town Manager work with the Chief to determine if the administration of this permitting process warrants its own fee.

I don’t believe there were any other amendments to the schedule, and we voted unanimously to approve it; aside from the Recreation Fees (field fees), which was tabled, as mentioned above.

Next, we discussed two resolutions that we will be sending to the General Assembly and Governor, regarding bills currently proposed in the state legislature for Municipal Tobacco Licensing and Utility Emergency Response. The tobacco licensing bill would allow cities and towns to issue permits, and therefore better regulate, the sale of tobacco and tobacco products within their municipalities.

The utilities bill establishes requirements for utility companies to provide better service and communication in the event of outages. As we saw last year with multiple power outages, it can be difficult to get questions answered and challenging to hold the utility companies accountable. This bill would help.

We voted unanimously to send both letters.

Next we discussed and acted on two bids. The first was a unanimous approval to award a bid by Walker Farms Concessions to operate as the kayak vendor at Walker Farm, for $325. The next bid was approved in part. The Bay Spring Community Center is in need of a new roof and siding. The bid included vinyl siding, as other options were expected to bring the project over budget. The bid came in under budget, so the Council voted unanimously to approve the roof, but to seek new bids for the siding, so that it could potentially be kept more in line with the historic nature of the building and aesthetic of the neighborhood.

We then introduced two ordinances, one that will make Waldron St a one way, from 7:30 AM - 8:30 AM during school drop-off, and another that will increase the tax exemption for military veterans and families of deceased veterans. Both ordinances will be heard next week, open for public comment, along with a continued ordinance relating to a zoning change establishing a “Neighborhood Restaurant” category.

Finally we reached our only ordinance on which we’d act; establishing a BYOB license. The concern around this was raised through our Economic Development Commission. There were no safeguards in place for restaurants without a liquor license allowing the consumption of alcohol at their establishment. I asked to remove one clause in the regulation, that would limit the amount of alcohol brought to “only enough for one table.” My reasoning was that it would prevent a customer from having a party at a restaurant without a liquor license and making use of the BYOB opportunity. The Council agreed, and we voted unanimously to approve the ordinance.

We then moved in to executive session to discuss renewal of our collective bargaining agreements with the unions in town, and some opportunities for land acquisition.

Finally, I’d like to close with another announcement made during the meeting: Congratulations to Vice President Kate Weymouth, and her husband Scott, on becoming grandparents last week!

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to post in the comments on this blog, on Facebook, call me, at (401) 903-2832, or send me an email.