There weren’t many audience members there to listen, but six of the eight candidates running for Warren Town Council spent nearly two hours last Thursday evening giving their take on the issues facing Warren at a public forum sponsored by the Rhode Island Voters Coalition.
The forum, held at Warren Town Hall, drew councilors Chris Stanley, David Frerichs, Scott Lial, Cathie Tattrie and Davison Bolster, as well as hopeful Joseph DePasquale. Not attending the forum were Democratic hopefuls Richard Silva and Brian Mellor, who declined to attend.
Like similar forums held across the East Bay in recent weeks, Thursday’s was designed to give audience members a chance to ask off the cuff questions to particular councilors. Though only about 20 people showed up for the event, residents touched on many of the points that face Warren — school funding, economic development, how to find the best people to serve on town boards, wind energy and more.
How to appoint?
The first question of the night was posed by Brandt Heckert, a State Street resident who serves as the chairman of the Warren Economic Development Board. He asked about how the town approaches appointing residents to serve on voluntary boards. There is ambiguity in the town charter as to the process, and he wanted to know whether councilors would always vote “up” someone serving as an alternate to a full seat, or will make decisions on a case by case basis, depending on the qualifications of the applicant. Answers varied widely:
“I believe in consistency,” replied Mr. Lial, an Independent. “If we’re going to have an approach … we should do that always and not have it be something that changes depending on the person who is being interviewed.”
Council chairman Stanley, a Republican, said he was happy to answer the question given that he has taken heat in recent weeks for voting to appoint Mark Smiley, chairman of the Warren Republican Town Committee, to a full seat on the zoning board.
“Mark was the most qualified by virtue of him being first alternate,” he said. “What does qualification mean? The large majority of appointments go uncontested.”
Said Mr. Bolster, an Independent, who voted against Mr. Smiley in the vote at question: “I stand by that (vote). I still strongly feel that people who have the most relevant experience should be the ones who are appointed.”
The next question came from audience member Ray Palmieiri, who asked whether councilors are still interested in being members of the East Bay Energy Consortium. EBEC recently made news when Bristol dropped out of the collective, which is attempting to establish a municipally built wind farm in the East Bay. Almost to a person, councilors said they’re intrigued by the wind farm idea and the possibility of generating income by selling electricity, but are wary:
“I do have some doubts at this time,” said Mr. Frerichs, a Democrat. “We’ve never seen a financial impact statement; I would like to see some real figures. But I do support wind energy if we can get a solid plan in place.”
“I think it is extremely premature for us to be pulling out,” added Mr. Bolster. “We do need to figure out ways to make it affordable; we’re still hungry for information.”
“We’ve been moving with a great deal of caution, and with reason,” added Mr. Stanley. “Should we get in the (wind energy) business? I’m not certain.”
Less reserved was Joseph DePasquale, an organizing member of EBEC. He said the group has much promise and deserves the town’s support.
“I feel it’s very unfortunate that Bristol stepped out. To close the door … is premature, unwise and unfair to the citizens.”
“The reality is, we don’t know all the answers,” said Mr. Lial. “That is not a reason to kill this.”
Aesthetics in Warren
The next question was posed by Eileen Collins, the president of the Warren Preservation Society. She asked what councilors will do to encourage property owners to improve their properties’ facades, given that an attractive town will attract business and visitors.
“We have worked very hard with the storefront projects,” said Ms. Tattrie. “We as a town need to put our money where our mouth is. We need to have some money that’s specifically set aside” for such uses.
Mr. DePasquale said he’ll work with state lawmakers to bring back the state’s defunct historic commercial tax credit program, which he says has the capacity to kick start renovation at some of the town’s biggest properties.
“The council has endorsed the Shipshape Challenge,” a town-wide program that encourages owners to beautify their property, added Mr. Frerichs. An attractive downtown, he said, is “really what draws people.”
Mr. Lial said beautification is a lofty ideal, but in practice is not easy. What it takes is a concerted effort by the town, and the funds to pull off. To get those funds, however, he and other lawmakers need support.
“Come to a budget meeting,” he told the audience. “We all know the value of improving the facade of Warren. Our guys work hard, but the raelity is money is needed to do these things.”
Mr. Stanley and Ms. Tattrie both agreed.
“We don’t have the money to go out every single day and sweep the streets,” said Mr. Stanley. “But I think it’s incumbent upon the residents as well to participate.”
“I think it comes down to funds,” added Ms. Tattrie, adding that she was in favor last year of hiring a code enforcement officer, an idea that was never pursued due to budgetary issues.
Another hot button topic was an idea floated by Mr. Stanley recently to create a school taxing district. Giving the schools power to levy and collect taxes, he has said, is one way to help reduce the crushing fiscal blow served up every year by the Bristol Warren Regional School District and the state, which is reducing state aid to the district. One resident asked what councilors and hopefuls thought of the idea. To a person, they said it’s intriguing, but by no means the be all end all.
“Chris’s idea belongs on the table for sure,” said Mr. Lial, but is part of a “collaborative” effort that must take with Bristol officials and the town’s representatives and Senator.
“The main problem is the unfair funding formula” from the state, said Mr. Frerichs. “I think an adjustment in the funding formula, at the very least,” is in order.
Next was discussion on an idea proposed recently by Mr. Bolster to create a mill district to help ease redevelopment of the town’s three main mills. Why establish another zoning district, asked one resident?
“This would simplify things,” said Mr. Bolster, adding that it would take the place of a patchwork of special districts and rules that currently exist on Warren’s books.
“I don’t want to add another layer,” said Mr. DePasquale, adding that he’s got an easy plan to help get the Tourister mill developed: “If we were to put a plan in place now, the next buyer would come in and know exactly what they were getting.”
“The current council’s grappled with controlling our involvement in the process,” added Mr. Lial. “We need to get creative and we have to do it quickly.”
Downtown vs. the rest of Warren?
Next, councilors were asked if they see downtown Warren as separate and distinct from the rest of town, be it Laurel Park or Touisset. The unequivocal answer? No.
“I don’t necessarily consider the waterfront as its own community,” said Ms. Tattrie. “I think that there are big differences from living downtown and living in Laurel Park. I don’t necessarily consider them separate. I think there are people who see them as separate (but) you have to have that division to make a community a community.”
“There are probably 400 Warrens,” said Mr. Lial. “It is incumbent upon us to represent everyone in a fair fashion. They all have their own interests but they’re all important to us.”
“I love Warren because we have so many parts,” said Mr. Frerichs. “They’re all intwined as one; to separate them out is ludicrous.”
“We do have that sort of mentality,” said Mr. Stanley. “We’re a cooky little town and there are a lot of people who’ve never left town. But I think that stigma (of different Warrens) is more myth.”
Studies, studies, studies
One question dealt with the many studies on Warren that have been completed in recent years, including the Waterfront Plan and the more recent Metacom Avenue Corridor Plan. One audience member asked why many of the recommendations made in past studies aren’t being implemented by the town.
“We’ve done a lot of studies (but) most of our job is putting out brush fires,” said Mr. Stanley. “Wee do use them to guide us, but they do have a tendency, very honestly, to find themselves on a bookshelf. Occasionally we pull them out and we look at them.
“Many times (suggestions are) tied to funding,” added Mr. DePasquale.
“I share your frustration,” Mr. Bolster told the audience member. “We need to get these plans off the shelf. If we make a commitment to something, people show up; Luther Blount showed up with a $1 million check” to help preserve Warren’s working waterfront after the town finished the Waterfront plan, for example.
Next, councilors were asked about tenure for town volunteers, and whether it is a good idea.
“I’ve been in town long enough to see people on boards who have been there way too long,” said Mr. Bolster, whose recent push to institute term limits on town boards initiated the discussion.
“They have a sense of entitlement,” he said.
Conversely, “I don’t think this is something that would work for us,” said Ms. Tattrie. “We do have a difficulty finding people to fill our boards.”
“If you don’t like the job we’re doing, hold us accountable” by voting us out of office, suggested Mr. DePasquale.
Said Mr. Lial:
“The reality really is, we (on the council) have two year terms which in my opinion are probably too short.” As for other boards, “we have a mechanism to remove board members; if they’re not doing their job, the council can remove that person.”