Council Meeting Summary - May 2019

Executive Summary:

The Bristol County Water Authority has issued water restrictions, calling for no outdoor water use until further notice, due to a leak in the water main

Our Town Financial Meeting will be held in the Barrington High School Auditorium on May 22nd, at 7:00 PM

We provided financial support to Flower Power to cover their costs of lining town center with beautiful hanging flower pots

We approved some bids, and once again delayed a renovation project for the Bay Spring Community Center in deference to maintaining the historic nature of the building, but 18 roads will be repaved this season!

We discussed Barrington’s litter problem and potential solutions

 

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 May 6th meeting. 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 June 3, and posted online for public review.

Cautionary note: This is my opinion. Please read this with the knowledge that “my side of the story” is presented more clearly and with more insight than the “other side,” which is limited to my assumptions of the positions of others. Because I am not presenting “the whole story,” I caution readers not to rely exclusively on these summaries to fully form their opinions. My hope is that you will find items of interest in here that will direct you to seek other sources of information about those topics.

Following the Pledge of Allegiance, we held the swearing in of members of our police department into elevated roles; Captain Harrington, and Lieutenants Igoe and Birrell. The professionalism of the department and the commitment of its people to continued learning and public service repeatedly impress me.

President Carroll then read a resolution honoring Bob Speaker, Barrington’s Building Inspector of 34 years, who will be retiring at the end of this month. His long tenure with Barrington saw him overseeing many projects of central importance to our infrastructure here in town. His expertise and experience will be missed.

Town Manager Jim Cunha then shared some announcements:

  • Financial Town Meeting: Wednesday, May 22, 7:00 PM at the BHS auditorium

    • Attend to share your voice and your vote on our town’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year

    • In addition to voting on the budget as presented, there will be a variety of amendments and related votes. The FTM is a unique, truly democratic opportunity we have in Barrington that allows all voters to be engaged in our budget process and priorities

    • I will also formally (and personally, not as a member of the Council) seek a resolution to increase the municipal budget by $45,000 in an effort to raise our town’s minimum wage for municipal workers to $15 per hour

  • Letter Carriers Food Drive: Saturday, May 11

    • This food drive is being conducted in partnership with TAP-IN

    • Place a bag of non-perishable, unexpired food by your mailbox and it will be collected and used to help feed members of our community

  • Open House at the Barrington Farm School: Saturday, May 18

    • Visit the Barrington Farm School to learn about the great work they’ve done in short time

    • Learn about composting, beekeeping, soil testing, and more

  • Outdoor water restrictions, in effect now

    • Due to a leak in the primary pipeline bringing water to the East Bay, the Bristol County Water Authority has implemented a temporary ban on the use of outdoor water for all its customers

We then moved on to the Consent Agenda, which is a series of routine agenda items, such as recognizing resignations and re-appointments to boards and commissions, approval of minutes, receipt of correspondence and the like. The purpose here is to take action in bulk for items that don’t require additional discussion.

I asked that the agenda item on reappointments to the town’s boards and commissions be pulled from the consent agenda, along with the minutes from a meeting of the Council on April 20th. Vice President Weymouth asked that the Senior Services Director’s report and the Building Official’s report be pulled.

I took no issue with the specific reappointments in the consent agenda, but I wanted to discuss the process of reappointing people to their roles. Most of the volunteer spots on these committees are for a period of three years. We often have vacancies on several committees, but I wanted to understand whether we’ve been “rubber stamping” reappointments as a matter of practice, or of policy. I wanted to ensure that we are not blocking the opportunity for new people to engage in service to our town in areas with which they may have some expertise or interest. These should not be lifetime appointments. Had I learned it was a matter of policy, I’d have wanted to amend the policy. I greatly appreciate the time and effort of people serving, and that they want to continue that service. I believe we also need to ensure that we don’t miss the opportunity for new ideas, perspectives and expertise by never opening spots and seeking to recruit new people.

The reappointments being part of the consent agenda, without a public posting of an open position is merely a matter of practice, and not policy. So, if there are any boards or commissions on which you would like to serve, please let me know and we can discuss when the next opening will be. I will try to be sure all who want to be involved have the opportunity to be interviewed for a spot. We currently have several vacancies, please have a look. (the Harbor and Conservation spots were filled Monday night, so if those still list one vacancy, that isn’t accurate.)

I removed the April 20 minutes because I was not at the meeting and want to abstain from voting on them, which I cannot do when they are part of the consent agenda.

Vice President Weymouth wanted to call out the free transportation service being expanded for Barrington residents. In addition to afternoon bus service on Wednesdays and Thursdays to town center, residents can now call for a ride to the Peck Center on Mondays and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM (you’re welcome to stay for lunch, too). Call 247-1968 to arrange a ride, or email seniorpt@barrington.ri.gov. VP Weymouth also wanted to commend the town on its increase in solar panel installation, which has steadily risen over the past three years.

We interviewed Eileen Small for a vacancy on the Conservation Commission. Her experience in conservation and as an arborist will be a great addition there. Dwight McMillan was interviewed for a vacancy on the Harbor Commission. He spoke of his interest in boating and experience, which was then more boldly underscored by Councilor Joy Hearn who spoke highly of him and his value as an addition to the Commission. Both appointments were made unanimously.

Next, Director Allan Klepper discussed his monthly report from the Bristol County Water Authority. Most of the discussion was around the leak and their work to find and fix it. He reassured us that we are not at risk of inadequate pressure should our fire department need to draw significant water for a fire.

We then were given a presentation by the BAY Team and East Bay Tobacco Youth Council. They shared their findings from a variety of assessments in partnership with the RI Department of Health and the FDA. Through their work, and work by their partnering organizations, Barrington and the East Bay as a whole are leading by example and we received commendation by the RIDOH.

We voted unanimously to transfer funds from debt service to capital. This was done because our financing terms were more favorable than projected on a project, but the bids for the project came in over estimated. This transfer is a budget neutral way to shore up some of the funds to complete the project (Peck Center roof and renovations), rather than having the debt savings rolled into the general fund’s reserve account and going into the hole to finish the needed work on the roof.

We refunded permit fees to the contractors who worked on a municipal project. If we don’t refund them, the contractors simply pass the fees onto the town. Refunding them saves a bit of paperwork and hassle for all involved.

We then discussed financial support from the Council’s contingency fund for Flower Power’s work that creates a beautiful landscape through town center with more than one hundred hanging flowers along County Road. The practice has been ongoing for many years and is put on by a private organization supported by the community.

Over the years, its core of volunteers has decreased from 15 to four, and the costs for watering are increasing significantly this year. We all agree that it adds value to the town and is one of “those extra things” that makes Barrington the special town it is. But, we also (at least a few of us, including me) expressed apprehension about it becoming a continuing request. We had about $11,000 available in the fund (of $20,000; with only half that in the budget being proposed at the FTM for next year), so a $4,000 request is a substantial chunk.

Because of the value it brings, that strong history of volunteer and community support behind it, and with a caution that I wouldn’t want the request to become an annual ask (as Councilor Boyajian pointed out, that’s not the purpose of the Contingency Fund, but if it’s annual it should be a request in the budget), I made a motion to grant the request and it passed unanimously.

Four ordinances were introduced for public hearing at our June 3rd meeting, relating to drainage, the harbormaster, liquor license regulations, and animal fees and fines.

There were two bids we were asked to authorize. The first is a $1.2 million repaving project. We awarded the bid as requested and as many as 18 roads, possibly more if time permits, will be repaved. We’ve had good outcomes with the bid winner, who did our paving last year, and they were also the low bidder. Win-Win!

The other was a request that’s now come to us at least three meetings in a row. The Bay Spring Community Center is in need of renovation. The roof is approved and waiting to be replaced, but the siding also needs replacement and that is what has tripped up the Council. We once again punted on award this bid, seeking a better option, aesthetically, to recover the town’s third most historic building.

We held hearings for two ordinances, with no public comment offered on either: surplus equipment and a notice requirement to the Planning Board in advance of a vote to acquire or sell land.

The surplus equipment ordinance was proposed to allow disposal of equipment with a market value of less than $5,000 at the Town Manager’s discretion. I requested that the value be set to the initial purchase price rather than the fair market value, because the former is a verifiable number rather than the latter, which is up for debate. President Carroll shared that opinion, but noted it could be difficult because much of the equipment that falls into this category has been purchased many years ago. Town Solicitor Mike Ursillo agreed with that, and depreciation was mentioned.

I withdrew that request, but then asked about reducing the value to $2,500. My concern was that if something does have a value of a few thousand dollars, we shouldn’t be ignoring what happens to that, but should be sure to capture that value. My thinking here was partly ignorance of the terms, which were explained. Disposal in this ordinance does not refer only to throwing an item away or recycling, but includes trading it in or selling it outright. With that, I voted in favor of passing the unanimous motion.

However, a comment was made by the Town Manager that bears addressing. He said he hoped that anything below $5,000 would be viewed as a waste of our time, and that “at some point, you have to trust your manager.” Now, I do agree with that on the surface. However, our ordinances are in place to guide the town. Not just today, but forever. I, Jacob Brier, trust our Town Manager, Jim Cunha. I don’t know who will be on the Council and who will be Town Manager in ten years. I don’t trust those people, and don’t believe that I should. Changing an ordinance is like amending a contract. You don’t write a contract to guide what happens in the best of circumstances, you do it to set boundaries for normal operations and to direct what happens in the worst of circumstances.

The next ordinance gave me concern, as well. There is a disclosure requirement for any person or group, up to and including the Town Council, to share the plans for major public improvements or land acquisition with the Planning Board at least 60 days in advance of a vote for said project at a Financial Town Meeting. The reason we heard this ordinance change is due to such a vote being planned at this year’s FTM, and the disclosure not having been provided in the required window of time.

The reason for the disclosure is so the Planning Board can evaluate the plan and make a recommendation. The specific change being made to the ordinance was to add a sentence that the Town Council can waive such a disclosure with a majority vote, “for good cause shown.”

At the start of the conversation about the ordinance change, it was requested that “for good cause shown” be stricken, to avoid any argument after-the-fact that good cause wasn’t shown. I asked if the disclosure to the Planning Board had been made, once it was realized that we’d already passed the 60-day window before the FTM. It had not been made.

I asked that we amend the change so that it reduces the window to a time at which we can provide advance notice, rather than allowing for the disclosure to be waived altogether. That request did not have support. The Town Solicitor noted that we could include a sunset provision, and that comment did not gain support.

This is a move to change the rules after we did not follow them. It’s in our power to do so, but it also is a move that consolidates more power to the Council and decreases transparency. I wasn’t seeking to disrupt the ultimate plan -- to potentially vote on land acquisition at the FTM -- but to change the rules as little as possible in order to not leave a wide door open for bad actors in the future.

I protested the motion as bad policy. My concern was that a council in the past made the determination that this disclosure be required because it protects the town by ensuring plans are well thought out and that there is ample opportunity for residents and appointed officials to evaluate them. We have good intentions for this, but like the surplus equipment ordinance, a Council in the future could then use the new rules with bad intentions.

As I was still hoping to plead my case, a motion was made to adopt the ordinance change, with “for good cause shown” removed, with the comment made to me that I could just vote against it if I don’t like it. I did vote against it, and it passed, 4-1.

We then discussed the litter problem in Barrington. There are areas of town that have a lot of litter of both recyclable and detrimental materials. Parks and paths throughout town are being damaged by this, and Vice President Weymouth asked for this discussion so we could evaluate ways to correct the problem. There is a state law allowing for fines and the imposition of community service hours for people caught littering. We have not been focusing on imposing that, and we discussed the possibility of doing so, as well as posting signs about the penalties. We also discussed a community cleanup as part of Earth Day, similar to the Day of Caring done in October. That idea seemed to resonate with most.

Finally, before moving to Executive Session, Solicitor Ursillo informed us of a court ruling in an issue related to the Burrillville Power Plant. It impacts Barrington because we are among the many municipalities purchasing water from the Providence Water Supply Board. There is no direct impact or cost, but it was a favorable ruling with regard to our rights as an independent body to resell that water.

We then moved into Executive Session to discuss the items listed on the agenda, on which I’m not at liberty to elaborate.

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