Letter: Time is now to set precedent of legitimate oversight by the council

Posted 5/2/19

To the editor:In regard to the discussion at the April 16 Council meeting over Council members’ access to department heads, it was bound to happen that differences of opinion would come up over …

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Letter: Time is now to set precedent of legitimate oversight by the council

Posted

To the editor:
In regard to the discussion at the April 16 Council meeting over Council members’ access to department heads, it was bound to happen that differences of opinion would come up over who does what in our new form of government. This particular matter came up sooner than later, and it’s a good thing it did now.
Mayor Bob DaSilva, through Marc Furtado, his Director of Policy, expressed the position that in a “strong mayor” system of governance, Council members must defer to the executive branch when seeking to interact with department heads. Mr. Furtado stated that the Mayor’s office is “setting precedents” for interactions between the two branches of government and stated further that the Mayor is “concerned with setting precedents 10, 20, 30 years down the line….”
Several Council members, most strongly Mr. Mourato and Mr. Cahoon, expressed frustration with the administration’s approach, citing the Council’s need to seek information from department heads in order to craft legislation for the betterment of our community. Without direct access to those department heads, each of whom is a professional in his or her field, legislation could occur in a vacuum of uninformed opinion or personal preference.
There is little doubt that some past Council members ran roughshod over the then-separation of powers between the Council and appointed City Manager. On occasion, they seemed to want to run day-to-day activities in City Hall from Council chambers or from back rooms. But this, for this most part, is a new set of players who, with the two holdovers, seem intent on playing their appropriate part in legislating and performing their legitimate responsibility of check-and-balance over the executive branch.
Cutting to the chase, Sections 2-9 and 2-10 of our City Charter denote the responsibilities and limitations of the Council. Section 2-9(6) gives the Council the power to inquire into "the conduct of any office, department or agency of the City and make investigation as to municipal affairs...." Section 2-10 clearly gives authority over department heads and their subordinates to the mayor, but just as clearly gives the Council the ability to question department heads as part of their duties. The words “except for the purpose of inquiry,…” gives them that right.
If we’re in the process of setting precedent for 10, 20, 30 years down the road, we’d better set the precedent of legitimate Council authority right now, before the strong mayor system becomes a despotic mayor system. I strongly support former Councilman Jim Briden’s recent suggestion that we reconvene some version of the Charter Commission in order to tweak the Charter and make sure that everyone in office knows his or her lawful role 10 or more years down the road.
Candy Seel
East Providence

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.