Some important updates from Steve Stycos:
OPENNESS IN GOVERNMENT
In my first months on the City Council, I have pushed for more openness in handling of claims against the city and hearing of tax assessment appeals.
Upon the recommendation of Assistant City Solicitor Evan Kirshembaum, the Claims Committee approved a proposal by Ward Four Councilman Robert Pelletier to limit the public discussion of claims against the city by a 4-1 vote. I chair the committee and was the one vote against the proposal.
Later, the Providence Journal reported that City Solicitor Anthony Cipriano reversed Kirshembaum’s recommendation and declared the information should be public. Most claims are minor, like mailboxes hit by plows or tires flattened by pot holes. I agree that discussions of legal strategy, like how much to offer claimants, should be in private session. But when the council votes to spend money, the public should know what is happening. This has yet to be resolved.
Meanwhile, I learned that the Board of Tax Assessment Review had been holding deliberations in private. Under state law, taxpayers have a right to challenge their tax assessment before a three member board appointed by the City Council. The board taped its meetings, but only the portion when taxpayers made their pleas for lower assessments. Board discussion of whether to grant appeals were in not recorded. After I raised the issue, the board began keeping minutes of the entire meeting.
I also learned that board members were being paid in violation of city ordinances. Board members are paid $50 for each meeting they attend, but the city code limits them to five meetings a month unless the city council president or chair of the Finance Committee give written permission. In 2010, however, the board met 124 times without receiving permission for extra meetings. When I raised the issue, the board chairman, Rory Budlong, said the board was unaware of the notice requirement.
Shortly afterwards, the board held its first meeting with written minutes. It lasted 28 minutes, but the city code says meetings must last at least an hour for board members to be paid. At the last council meeting I stated that the board should not be paid for the meeting, but Mayor Fung’s top administrators and Robert Pelletier disagreed.
Meanwhile, Councilman Pelletier, as chair of the Finance Committee, has given the board permission to meet more than five times a month.
Based on this record, I have no confidence in this board and will be pushing to correct the situation. The amount of overpaid meeting fees is not huge, but I believe these three people owe the city money.
JUVENILE HEARING BOARD
Cranston’s Juvenile Hearing board hears minor offense cases, like fights and vandalism, referred by the police department. In an effort to keep teenagers out of the court system, the board usually resolves cases by requiring community service or an essay.
For years, Judy Pelkey served on the board, but when she was not reappointed, the seven member board became all male. Judy argues that it is important, especially for women and girls, for the board to contain women. I agree and have sponsored an ordinance to require at least two members of each sex serve on the board. The proposal ran into some opposition at its first hearing and I agreed to continue the issue so we could gather some additional information.
I need some women to support it. Please let me know if you are able to testify in favor of the proposal. The Ordinance Committee will hold a hearing on it and other items Thursday March 17 at 7 PM at City Hall.
The actual proposed ordinance is at http://web.cranstonri.org/clerkdocs/2011Ordinances/Proposed/Juvenile%20Hearing%20Bd%20Composition%20Diversity.pdf
ZONING REFORM ORDINANCE
In response to the Cranston Zoning Board of Review approval of variances for CVS and Stop and Shop, Ward Two Councilman Emilio Navarro and I have sponsored a zoning reform ordinance to improve the zoning review process. The ordinance seeks to make the board pay more attention to the zoning code and improve the public’s opportunity to participate in decisions that change their neighborhoods. A Providence Journal editorial printed on 3/10/11 discusses the problem. A hearing on the proposed ordinance will be held in April.
The ordinance incorporates suggestions from leaders of the West Bay Land Trust and Respect4Edgewood. Currently the zoning board pays little attention to our zoning code, choosing instead to work out deals with developers late at night after most of the public has gone home. In both the CVS and Stop and Shop cases, stores were granted sign variances by insisting they needed much more than allowed by law, and then at the last minute “compromising” to a lower amounts that was considerably more than permitted by law.
In the Stop and Shop case, 300 square feet of signs were permitted, but the store wanted 450 square feet. The zoning board granted 375 feet with almost no discussion of whether the agreement complied with legal guidelines for granting variances. Instead they made a quick deal, with none of the city’s planning department staff present. At that point only Stop and Shop lawyer Robert Murray, one member of the public and I were present.
In an attempt to get zoning board members to pay more attention to the zoning code, the reform proposal requires them to take an oath before the City Council to uphold the law.
The reform proposal also requires the board to make decisions when the public is still present. Currently the board holds public hearings on all cases on the agenda and then, often late in the evening, makes decisions on each case. The reform proposal requires them to hear the first case, then make a decision before hearing the second case. This would allow members of the public to watch the deliberations and learn the outcome without sitting through every little case about a mother-in-law apartment. The change is also business friendly because it allows lawyers to go home after their client’s case finishes, reducing hourly billing for time spent waiting for a decision..
Another reform provision requires developers to submit two sets of plans: one in compliance with the code, and one with the variance they are seeking. This would allow the zoning board to review alternatives. The reform proposal also requires plans be submitted a week before the hearing, to give time for public review. CVS changed its plans hours before one meeting, making it difficult for Respect4Edgewood to intelligently analyze them. Other provisions would require plans be submitted in “pdf” files and for site plan review meetings to be held after work hours.
Finally, the reform ordinance bars the zoning board from soliciting or accepting testimony after the public hearing is closed. During the Stop and Shop hearing, attorney Murray was allowed to make comments during the board’s deliberations.
I also would like to limit the board’s ability to make last minute “compromises” with developers, but have yet to settle on a specific plan. Important zoning decisions need to be made carefully, not late at night by scrawling notes on a set of plans.
The hearing on the reform ordinance will be held Thursday April 14 at 7 PM in City Hall before the Ordinance Committee. We will need public support to win passage.
Clearly, Steve Stycos continues to fight for better government, and hopefully will be setting a new precedent for conducting meetings more ethically. I also appreciate his calling attention to the issue of increasing female representation on the juvenile hearing board.