Council Meeting Summary - September 2019

Executive Summary:

  • Monthly Reports are improving

  • Several new appointments to town Boards and Commissions

  • Barrington road construction will now be guided by a  Complete Streets Policy

  • Public Comment given relating to the new assessment policy, and concerns regarding our appointments process

  • Town Hall will remain open late on Mondays, closing early on Fridays

  • A food truck ordinance, and new zoning ordinances passed

Click here for my usual “disclaimer” relating to the purpose and potential for bias of my meeting recaps

And here is the detailed September meeting’s agenda.

Full Recap

Following the pledge of allegiance, led by President Carroll, Town Manager Jim Cunha (TM) shared some announcements:

  • Saturday, September 21 – Fiddle ‘N Folk Fest Noon – 5:00pm Haines Park (rain date:  Sunday, September 22)

  • Monday, September 30 – Blood Drive 3:00-7:00pm – Barrington Library Gallery

  • Tuesday, October 1 - My son’s birthday!! *

  • Wednesday, October 2 – Boards and Commissions Informational Forum on OMA and Ethics

  • Friday, October 4-5 - Barrington Beach Community Campout *

  • Monday, October 14 - Columbus Day Town Hall, Barrington Public Library and DPW CLOSED

  • Monday, October 14 – Barrington Day of Caring 11:00am – 4:00pm, assemble at the Town Hall

  •  Saturday, October 19 – Community Shred 9-11:00am Department of Public Works

* These items were not in the announcements, but I have added them, along with this reminder that Rosh Hashanah is September 30 and October 1, and Yom Kippur is October 9. Schools will be closed 9/30 and 10/9.

For the Consent Agenda, which is the next series of agenda topics (4-13), I pulled a few items so that we could discuss them directly. All items not pulled are voted on as a group, because they are routine and no Councilors or members of the public felt discussion was warranted.

I pulled the reports section because there were two reports about which I had questions, and I also wanted to discuss adding more comparative data to the reports in an ongoing basis. We have little time between when the reports are available and when we have the opportunity to discuss them in our Council meetings, and the format I proposed would aid me, and I believe other Council members and the public as a whole, in viewing a better “big picture” snapshot of the status and trends of the town’s activities. Following my initial request at the beginning of the summer, the reports did change and now provide more comparative information. I wanted to take the opportunity to push the reports a bit further. It did not seem others shared this value, and I’m unsure what will come of my request. I plan to persistent here, because I believe it to be a good and important change.

As for the specific items in the Consent agenda, I pulled the Allin’s family cemetery notice. It seemed routine, and I didn’t have any direct concerns with it. The Bay Spring Realty Company is developing land in close proximity to an old family cemetery. They conducted a series of tests to ensure the construction would not disturb any graves, and the tests passed. I did not want to prevent or delay development further, but I did want to ensure that the Allin family, if in attendance, was able to address this. They were not in attendance and we were told they had not taken up this issue. I moved to allow construction, which passed unanimously, I believe with the recusal of Councilor Boyajian.

I also pulled the Correspondence section because I wanted to learn more about what could be done regarding a complaint in one of the letters. A resident expressed that the requirement for a notarization of the senior exemption was overly burdensome. I am unclear if anything would have been done about this complaint had I not pulled it from the Consent Agenda and we discussed it explicitly. But, in doing so, we learned that the need for the notarization was also burdensome for the Clerk’s office, the likelihood that not requiring notarization would be detrimental to the town is negligible, and there is no legal requirement that it be done. The Town Manager said that he would look into simplifying the process.

Following the Consent Agenda, during which Vice President Weymouth also made a correction to the Minutes from our prior meeting, we moved on to the BCWA Director’s report and a discussion of a new Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement.

The purpose of the PILOT agreement is to remove the fees paid back-and-forth between the Bristol County Water Authority and Barrington, Warren and Bristol. For the most part, each town’s residents are also the BCWA’s rate payers, and so the removal of these exchanges of fees reduces some administrative burden. I knew this agreement had been in discussions for a while and that representatives from the three towns and BCWA, along with their respective attorneys had all signed off on it.

I trusted that the intention of this agreement is good and that if it was being universally endorsed, it must serve a positive purpose. I’ve also been trying hard to remind myself that I’m generally a very trusting person, and I owe it to all parties to check that trust more often. 

Over the past years, the exchange of hydrant fees (paid by Barrington to BCWA) and PILOT fees (paid by BCWA to Barrington) has resulted in a net benefit of approximately $25,000 in revenue for Barrington. The agreement would reduce that for each of the next three years, and eliminate it entirely for the remaining seven of the 10-year agreement. So, I asked a question in the interest of validating my trust: Why is this agreement a good thing, specifically for Barrington residents?

As it turns out, the hydrant fees are not a fixed price, and the rates for them are currently well below market. Additionally, the PILOT fees are based on an estimate of the infrastructure on which the BCWA would pay taxes and the cost to determine the exact amount would be exorbitant. So, the benefit as I understand it is that even though this agreement eliminates $25,000 in revenue, it also ensures we do not end up with a net expense. We voted unanimously to approve it.

We then heard from applicants for Town Boards and Commissions. There were two positions for which there were more applicants than openings. The first was for the Discover Newport committee. This appointment is a non-voting position on a volunteer group that is not overseen by the Council. Hearing the strong qualifications of both individuals who applied, it was suggested that the Town might be best off appointing both people to the group and asking the chair of that committee to allow it. It creates a greater opportunity to advocate for Barrington’s interests among the group and it enlists more support from willing volunteers in the community. The other was the Senior Services Advisory Committee. Following the interview with the first applicant, the second applicant endorsed the first, believing she would better serve the group.

The appointment for the Planning Board’s first alternate was the first time I was able to appoint somebody to a position for which I’d recruited them. There are regularly spots available on some of the boards and commissions, and I encourage anybody who would consider giving some of their time and energy to the community to check this site periodically to learn if there is a position in which they’d like to serve (as of the publication of this blog, the page had not been updated to reflect the most recent appointments). When I met Mariana Silva-Buck, at one of my Coffee Conversations, I could tell her energy and experience would serve the town well. She then met with the Town Planner and the Planning Board Chair and decided to apply. She will be a great addition to the group’s conversations and analysis.

Next was Public Comment. The first comment was from a resident who had attempted to speak out during prior to a vote on one of our appointments, but was informed by President Carroll (and affirmed by the Town Solicitor) that appointments are not required to be open to public comment. She was invited to speak during Public Comment, at which time she inaccurately* accused the Council of appointing somebody who had previously been cited by the Attorney General for an ethics violation. At our prior meeting, the same person made a different, unsubstantiated allegation against the same applicant, and so I took this with a grain of salt. It does highlight though, that we do make these appointments with limited information about volunteers. It’s important to avoid burdensome processes, especially for volunteers, but if a person with a concerning past applied for a position, we’d likely not know about it. Improving this is something I’ll add to my list of areas on which to focus some attention.

*Following the meeting, I did some research and learned the violation to which was falsely alluded was actually a collective citing of an Open Meetings Act violation from 1994. Though it’s still a citation, the details of this one (the School Committee collectively discussed who they would select at Chair and Vice Chair during Executive Session) confirmed that I need not regret the appointment we’d just made. 

There were two other public comments given by residents who are unhappy with the new town policy of property assessments being updated during non-town-wide update years to the selling price, if there was an arms-length transaction during the prior year. One resident encouraged the Council to convene a committee that would determine the facts surrounding whether or not this should be done, and the other urged the Council to intervene in what is viewed as an unfair assessment policy. As this was already on our agenda for Executive Session, we did not respond to these issues/requests at this time.

Next up was a discussion about the upcoming Census. You may already be aware that RI is at risk of losing a Congressional seat, following the 2020 Census. As such, it is critical that we have a strong performance in the Census to ensure that all RIers are counted and that we maximize our chances of retaining two seats in Congress. It was on our agenda to form a committee that will be tasked with executing initiatives that will provide strong outreach and ensure Barrington has an excellent completion rate for the self-response portion of the Census.

I shared that I firmly believe in the goal of a committee undertaking this work, but cautioned against the Council establishing it. I’m serving on the Transportation Task Force for Barrington Public Schools, which was established under the oversight of the Superintendent, and does not report to the School Committee. As such, the group is not bound by the regulations of the Open Meetings Act. As a proponent of good government, I explained that the reason to avoid this is not so that things can remain under the radar, but so that a group such as the Census committee can remain agile to fulfill its mission. The group will not evaluate or recommend policy. I recommended that the Council not establish the committee but that the Town Manager should do so. Our Solicitor recommended not taking any formal action, and so we did not.

Short-Term Rentals were next on the agenda, for I believe the third time in the 9 months since I joined the Council. It was on our agenda in response to another letter received from Barrington residents who have had repeated negative experiences with various guests at a home in the area being used as a short-term rental. The purpose of it on our agenda was to discuss the issue and vote to ask the Town Solicitor to draft an ordinance for our consideration. 

In general, I am against the idea of regulating short-term rentals (such as those you’d find on Airbnb). We’ve had two separate town boards (the Planning Board and the Economic Development Commission) review this and recommend the Town take no action to regulate them. I reminded the Council of this, and Councilor Boyajian added that he felt it was an enforcement issue, not one in need of new legislation. Adding to that, with which I agree, I don’t know that it matters whether somebody is a paying guest in my home or an invited/free guest -- if they are a disturbance to my neighbors, outside of what’s allowed in our zoning code, I am responsible for that. I think the same can hold true, without any new legislation, for occupants of an Airbnb. Perhaps legislation is needed for that, in which case I may support it. But, I don’t believe limiting opportunity or charging permit fees is a solution we should be exploring. In the end, the recommendation that the Solicitor draft legislation passed, 4-0-1; with me casting a vote in absentia. 

In another month or two, we are likely to introduce the ordinance for this, and I encourage feedback from residents. Though I am against it now, if I hear from a considerable amount of the public that this is something Barrington should implement, I am open to changing my mind, or voting against my personal opinion.

We then heard from the Town Planner about a Complete Streets policy, which had been drafted following review by the Planning Board, as recommended by the Council last spring. In short, the policy sets the guidelines for road construction and renovation to take into account all users of streets, including pedestrians of all ages, automobiles, cyclists, and people with a range of physical abilities. As a cyclist, former runner, driver, and somebody who has spent a good amount of time on crutches, it is easy for me to see the strong value in such a policy. I’d been looking forward to this returning to our agenda. We voted unanimously to adopt the policy and I am encouraged by seeing this advance.

We then discussed briefly a resolution related to the shoreline and ensuring the rights of access to the water. There has been some controversy recently in Charlestown and in the General Assembly related to this, as access to the shore, fishing, collecting seaweed, etc, are all protected in the Rhode Island Constitution. Councilor Boyajian expressed apprehension to this resolution, and I believe in the end, no motion was made to adopt it. (It was a long meeting, and my recollection could be off here. I apologize for not having a firm account on this.)

We awarded bids for a study related to the Complete Streets policy that will formalize a specific plan to improve certain streets, including which streets those will be; the hiring of a Resiliency Planner (contract position); and two bids related to renovations at the Latham Park playground.

Following that, we got to our last public agenda item: ordinances. We introduced an amendment that would allow events on public grounds to serve alcohol, with the Town Manager’s permission. This will be discussed with public comment and voted on next meeting, October 7, 2019.

Next were two zoning changes. The first added a new zoning category, Agricultural-Rural (AR) and revised the zoning map to have the George Street area listed as AR. The purpose is to preserve the area’s current rural feel. It passed unanimously. The second zoning ordinance updated the Town’s written requirements to be consistent with state law.

We then voted to approve a change in the language of the beach’s parking permit policy, allowing town employees who live outside of town to also purchase (at regular price) a season pass. Councilor Hearn expressed concern over any change to how a “Barrington resident” might be defined. I appreciate that concern, but do not share the opinion that this change amounts to a changed definition of who is or is not a bona-fide resident, but merely allows a sub-set of non-residents to be considered a resident “for the purpose of [parking stickers].”

Next was an update to the language in the recent polystyrene ban to clarify the original intent. No changes to the policy in how it was communicated took place, but there were inconsistencies within it that created confusion regarding the types of retail goods that are not permitted to be sold in Barrington, as of 1/1/2020. This passed unanimously.

Last spring, we changed Town Hall hours to extend the day on Monday until 8:00 PM, and close early on Fridays, at noon. We voted unanimously during this meeting to remove a sunset clause in the ordinance and make this change permanent. The Town Manager noted that it had been received very well and that usage of Town Hall on Monday evening was high. I followed that by stating that I’d heard from people who intended to bring something to Town Hall on a Friday afternoon, but “forgot” that it closed early. I commended the the town’s communication about that (and said I was impressed that enough people knew about it that some already forgotten), and added that even though they were negatively impacted by the change, there was a complaint associated with it. To me, that is a sign that it’s a very positive change.

The final ordinance was another extended discussion. It was for a permit process for mobile food establishments (Food Trucks), and having one is required by state law. Were it not a state requirement, I would have been against having one. Because it is required, I sought to make it as minimal as possible. The ordinance, as proposed, included the maximum allowable annual fee of $75. That would be $3,000 in municipal fees each year, per truck, if they chose to operate in all municipalities, in addition to state fees. My view was that few food trucks come to Barrington as it is, and far fewer come multiple times. At a cost of $75, I was concerned that food trucks would simply choose not to serve people in Barrington. This would negatively impact the folks who enjoy going to them, as well as the businesses and events that request them specifically to promote their events or stores (including the Town’s own events, such as this coming Saturday’s Little League Champion Celebration). There were also two sections that included $300 fees for events, either held on public land with a food truck, or held on private land, with 500+ people, regardless of a food truck being there. Both of these seemed out of place to me and I wanted them removed from the ordinance or for the Council to allow them to be waived. There was a section that could limit the number of permits available to a predetermined amount, but we all seemed in agreement that there shouldn’t be a limit. I wanted it to be as easy as the state law allows.

President Carroll suggested a motion with my requested changes and we voted 4-1-0 to adopt the ordinance, with Councilor Boyajian voting against it, in objection, I believe, to the ordinance taking as much of the Council’s time and energy as it had (going back to earlier proposals in the past).

We then convened in Executive Session in accordance with RI law, 42-46-5 (a) (2), to discuss litigation relating to tax assessments.

As always, if you have any questions about the content of this post, the meeting agenda, or anything else going on in town, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I look forward to hearing from you and discussing what we can do to make Barrington event better!