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Inside Town Government

By Ron Scopelliti

The Smithfield Charter Review Commission

The 2020 election may be nearly a year away, but a small group of Smithfield residents are already at work on what may be some of the most important items on the local ballot. On November 6, the latest version of the Smithfield Charter Review Commission held their first meeting at Town Hall. The commission will be meeting twice a month until June to recommend changes to the Town Charter, which will then be voted upon in next November’s election.

The Town Charter is a 30-page document that sets the rules by which Smithfield’s government operates. These range from overarching subjects as the current Town Council/Town Manager form of government, to more minute details, such as the formulas for determining the town’s Capital Reserve Fund and Land Trust Reserve Fund.

During a recent interview with The Smithfield Times, Town Manager Randy Rossi described the charter informally but succinctly as “the manual for the town.” The entire document is available to the public at smithfieldri.com/pdf/ordinance/SmithfieldTownCharter.pdf.

In order to keep the Charter current and relevant, it’s stipulated that every fifth year, a nine-member Charter Review Commission will be appointed to “review the operation of the Charter of the Town, and propose to the [Town] Council such amendments, if any, as it may deem necessary and advisable.”

The Commission holds regular public meetings from the time of their appointment until June of the following year, when they bring their recommendations before the Town Council for a public hearing. The Council then chooses which, if any, of the recommendations will make it to the ballot.

According to Rossi, the recommendations that are approved by the Town Council will then be submitted to the Board of Elections in August, and will be placed on the ballot of the November 3, 2020 election.

“To go into effect,” he said “they would have to be passed by the voters.” All that is required is a simple majority.

Each time the charter is reviewed, it opens up the potential for sweeping changes in the way the town is run.

“They could revamp the full operations of the town if they wanted to,” Rossi said, “from structure of government, to election season, terms of office, the budget process… The manual for the town could change.”

There are several issues that have come up regularly since the charter was first approved in 1992.

“Changing the form of government from a town manager to a mayor – that’s always brought up,” he said. “Putting in term limits for boards and commissions, or councils, or school committee – that’s always brought up.” Changing the budget process to having a budget board, is also frequently discussed.

The last update of the charter, approved on Dec. 18, 2014, included, among other items, changes to the required qualifications of the Town Manager, changes to the management of Town Clerk’s position, and the establishment of the Historic Preservation Commission.

The current Charter Review Commission was chosen after the town solicited for participants, and received 20 applications. The applicants were interviewed in closed sessions by the Town Council on Sept. 18 and Sept. 24.

At the Oct. 15 Town Council Meeting, the following nine members were appointed to the commission: Alfred Costantino, John Emin, William Hawkins III, Michael P. Iannotti, Albert Nani III, Paul M. Santucci, Beverly Tobin, Trish Williams, and Thomas Winfield. During the meeting, Town Council President Suzy Alba said that the group represented all political parties, unaffiliated voters, and all demographics within our community.

During their first meeting on November 6, Costantino was named chairman of the commission, and Winfield was named vice-chair. The group also announced its plan for subsequent meetings to take place on the first and third Wednesday of each month, 6 p.m., at the Smithfield Senior Center in Deerfield Park. All meetings are open to the public, and the Senior Center was chosen as the preferred venue to better accommodate a large audience. Though the initial meeting of the Charter Review Commission was open to the public, there was nobody in the audience.

As with other town meetings, the Charter Review Commission meetings will be announced on the town website, www.smithfieldri.com. More information on the commission members, and members of the town’s other boards and commissions, is available at onboard.smithfieldri.com