To the editor:
Ever since Little Compton voters approved the adoption of a Home Rule Charter in 1994, the Town Council has periodically appointed a seven-member Charter Review Commission “to review the Charter and recommend to the Council any amendments or revisions which it feels the Council should consider for presentation to the electors of the Town.”
As provided in Section 1004 of Little Compton’s Charter, this January marks the mandated four-year interval for the council’s appointment of a Charter Review Commission, to serve a two-year term. Little Compton residents interested in the town’s governance and future should consider offering their names for appointment to the commission. The Town Council has requested that candidates submit their names for consideration by January 10.
I have served on two Charter Review Commissions and chaired the commission appointed in 2005. Prior to that, I followed closely the activities of other commissions, including the original elected Charter Commission that drafted the 1994 Home Rule Charter. The work of each Charter Review Commission has provided an opportunity to consider constructive alternatives for improving the efficiency and transparency of town government.
Some issues that have been discussed in the past may be worthy of further review. For instance:
• Should any changes be made to the duties and responsibilities of the current position of Business Manager?
• Should the responsibilities of the offices and officials that manage town finances, such as the Board of Assessors, Treasurer/Tax Collector, and the School Department, be reorganized or redefined to meet the increasingly complex requirements of municipal finance?
• Should the Financial Town Meeting be modified?
• Should volunteer town boards and committees responsible for conservation and recreation be reorganized?
• Should the town consider nonpartisan elections for local offices?
These are just some questions and issues the next commission might consider. Other citizens and officials will of course have other ideas, opinions, and proposals.
The Home Rule provision of the Rhode Island Constitution grants “to the people of every city and town in this state the right of self government in all local matters” (Article 13, Section 1). The extent of the town’s Home Rule power and authority is not unlimited or always clearly defined, however. Section 4 of Article 13 also reserves to the General Assembly “the power to act in relation to the property, affairs and government of any city or town by general laws which shall apply alike to all cities and towns, but which shall not affect the form of government of any city or town.” Nor, as provided in Section 5 of Article 13, can a municipality impose any local tax without approval of the General Assembly. The real-estate transfer tax that funds the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust is an example.
The authority of the Charter Review Commission is only advisory. Under the provisions of the state Constitution, as reinforced by recent decisions of the state Supreme Court, the Town Council has sole authority to present proposed Charter amendments to voters. This has sometimes been a matter of frustration for previous Charter Review Commissions, who have seen some of their proposals rejected or significantly diluted by Town Councils. The Town Council should not, of course, be a mere rubber stamp for a Charter Review Commission. But the Council should offer generous deference to proposals offered by the volunteer Commission. In the end, Little Compton voters can and will decide the merits of the Charter amendments presented to them.
The Home Rule Charter provides the town’s voters the opportunity to alter the structure and operations of town government to meet Little Compton’s unique and evolving needs. I hope that thoughtful, conscientious town residents will consider seeking appointment to the next Charter Review Commission.