Thursday, March 12, 2009

Community Involvement -- A First Step

Being inspired by this post on The Bucket Blog, I attended my first Pawtucket City Council meeting last evening.  It’s my 2nd attempt at getting involved with my local community (the first was our family joining the Slater Mill.)

I never was much into civics during my school days so I didn’t really know what to expect.  I’ve seen town meetings on local access television (but not Pawtucket’s), but really had no clue as to the process.  I sat through the entire meeting, sometimes confused, almost wanting to raise my hand for a clarification.  When the Council President note a motion and a second, and then says “discussion"?”  Is he talking about Council discussion or discussion form citizens?  No one else in the audience said a single word, so I just sat and took my notes.  I will be more prepared next time.

Speaking of prepared, I attempted to get a listing of what was to be discussed at the council meeting.  I went to the City of Pawtucket website thinking I’d find information there.  Being in the technology field I think I can safely say that the City of Pawtucket website is not the most user friendly.   Decent homepage, but so many links take you to a page with a ton of white space.  There’s a nice link on the left to the City Council page.  “Ah, that’s where I’ll find what I need”, I thought.  Clicking to that page merely gives me the names, addresses, phones, and email (except Councilman Barry’s).  Along the right column are links to various PDFs for upcoming meetings.  There also is a spot entitle Related Links (more on that later).  Since I was interested in an Upcoming Meeting I found the March 11th City Council link and magically I had  the agenda.  The only problem was, the agenda was greek to me.  The agenda starts with “Previous Minutes 02/25/09” and then proceeds to 1.  Consent Agenda, 2. Correspondence (A-N), 3. Petition, blah, blah, blah, etc.  Now is that the agenda for the 3/11/09 meeting or the review of the minutes from 02/25/09?  (I learned it’s the former, btw.  The phrase “Previous Minutes 02/25/09” simply means the Council will acknowledge and accept the previous meeting minutes.) 

I’ve recapped the meeting below for those interested.  After the meeting adjourned I approached the City Clerk to ask where one finds the various resolutions discussed, the correspondence, etc.  He directed me to the website and said it was all linked there and that if I had a problem I could call the City Clerk’s office.  When I got home I decided to look further on the website as I didn’t find anything other than the agenda when I had looked previously.  Knowing there should be more on the website I looked a bit closer and found a “related link” on the City Council page entitled “Search City Council Docket, Minutes, Resolutions & Ordinances (Includes Ordinances not yet codified)”   That link brought me to very nice site called ClerkBase.  The City must contract this service out (it appears to be a RI company -- bravo).  Using ClerkBase I was able to find the docket for the meeting with links to the communications, resolutions, etc.  They were all in tiff format and the ClerkBase homepage had a download for a free tiff viewer if needed.  The ClerkBase has tons of info, including minutes, ordinances, and resolutions dating back to the 1980s.  Very nice.  I just wish I had discovered it before attending the meeting.  With this knowledge in hand, I’ll be much better prepared for the next meeting.

A couple of other general notes before I dive into the meeting recap.  The Council Chamber was very nice (although I struggled to find it.  Thankfully the lobby does have a directory and I could figure out that Room 300-something would be on the third floor.  A sign below the front and center “Welcome” signage from Mayor Doyle saying something like, “Council Chambers – 3rd Floor” would be nice.)  BTW: It’s easy to see why our City Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The Council members were all very professional.  I was surprised to see the television camera as I’d never found the Council Meeting on local access TV (although I must admit I’ve not really looked).  I was disappointed by the number of everyday city residents like myself in attendance.  There were at most 20 and many of them were there only to hear their license renewal request be addressed.  There were probably five firefighters in attendance, but they left after their issues were taken up.  I’d say there were probably five people in attendance who like myself, were just interested in what was going on in our local government. 

In all I consider the evening a good experience.  I still have questions, but I’m sure I’ll get them addressed.  I know I will participate again in future City Council meetings. 

Recap of the meeting for those interested:

The Council deviated a bit from the outlined agenda to take up the appointment of a young man to the Juvenile Hearing Board.  His family was in the audience and the Council President wanted to confirm his appointment first.  Philips J. Shea, III, who had been nominated for a position on the board by Mayor Doyle was briefly interviewed and approved for the board position.  Mr. Shea is a 22 year old man who had a very nice resume working with Pawtucket youth.  I applaud his volunteerism.

After the previous minutes were approved the Council moved on to the Consent Agenda.  My notes show only, “Where is Agenda?”  It was that confusing to me having only previously seen the agenda outline. 

Next in my notes was a proposal by Councilman Vitali for an Ad Hoc Committee For Economic Development.  It seems the previous evening there had been a meeting at the Comfort Inn (possibly convened by Mayor Doyle) with local business people.  Council President Kinch reminded everyone that there already was such a committee setup nearly four years ago, which technically had never been disbanded.  After much discussion it was decided to try and resurrect the committee, ask the old committee members if they’d still like to serve, and potentially solicit new volunteers.  It was almost the most interesting discussion I witnessed.  (I say almost because the discussion later about tax anticipation notes was tops for the night.)  It was the only “new” item I witnessed all evening.  I came away thinking so much must go on outside of the general Council meeting.  The “work” must get done in committees.  (To be fair there were committee meetings before the general meeting which I could not attend.  I assume they, too, are open to the public.  Next time I’ll try and attend those as well.)

Next was Correspondence.  It must have been accepted/approved en mass as I have nothing in my notes, yet there are 14 correspondence items listed in the agenda.  Where are all these correspondence items?  Nothing was read that I recall.  So, for a layman in the audience, it was just bewildering. [Note:  I found those correspondence items on ClerkBase when I got home.]

The next item on the agenda was just bizarre to me.  It was a petition by the Pawtucket Red Sox Baseball Club, Inc (such an official sounding name).  Anyway, old blue laws must still exist as the petition was for the playing of baseball at McCoy on Sundays.  I found this odd in this politically correct 21st century.

After a few councilmember appointments to various committees were taken up, the most interesting discussion of the evening took place.  It was about a request for a $3 million “tax anticipation note”.  It seems Pawtucket is pretty much broke.  They have a $5 million bond due April 30th.  I’m not clear what this bond was for, but I believe it has to do with school financing.  They also have payroll to meet.  With income tax collection being delinquent the city may not be able to make it’s bond payment (not a good thing – the term “junk bond status” was tossed out.)  So, a lively discussion was had between council members and I believe the City Finance Manager.  The council members knew they had no choice but to approve the measure, but they wanted their reservations on the record (at least that’s what I took from the discussion).  So, the City of Pawtucket is basically going to issue a short-term bond in the amount of $3 million.  It will become due on June 30th and cost the City approximately $150,000.00 in interest for the use of the $3 million for three months.  It’s expected that the City can pay off the bond when due on June 30th with the next tax collection cycle revenue.  I’ve heard of tax anticipation bonds in the past, and I imagine it’s somewhat common for states or municipalities to use this bridge.  From what I gathered, what is concerning is that Pawtucket set in place a method that the city would not be impacted by the quarterly payment of taxes.  This should not have happened.  More disturbing is that the city has depleted the reserves (our savings account).  What will happen next time the bond comes due.  I have in my notes that the bond payment started at $2.8 million and is now at $5.1 million.  It was my understanding that this was for schools and perhaps is tied to increases in those budgets.  I did pickup on a bit of disdain from some council members for the School Committee.  When you start referring to “those people on Main St”, things can’t be good.  [Note: it took me awhile to get the reference to “Main St”.  I’m not sure everyone would.]

The Council when they approved the tax anticipation bill made note that the money was to be spent in this order:  Bond payment, municipal payroll, and lastly school payroll.  In particular, Councilman Moran was deeply disturbed that the teacher’s union would not negotiate to help the city in these tough fiscal times.  It seems they have a 3.5% raise approved and they do not want to come back to the table and risk that. 

Various resolutions, licenses, and claims were taken up next.  Again, without the benefit of having seen the resolutions it was somewhat hard to follow along.  An interesting point came up about the claims, however.  It seems that there have been a sudden influx of claims caused by the fire department.  While the claims committee often sees claims for damages caused by fire department vehicles, they usually are mixed in with pothole damages, etc.  It was requested that the Fire Chief be asked to attend the next claims committee meeting to discuss ways to curtail these claims resulting from fire department personnel.  The concern and request were done with a very professional tone.

The meeting adjourned in the memory of Eleanor Coughlin.  A long time resident (I think she was 92) of Pawtucket who passed away recently. 


Joel Tirrell said...

Great recap of the meeting...
about the format: read up on Robert's Rules of Order, the meeting will generally follow them.
Get the agenda/docket for future meetings here:
(it has links to what they are talking about - the link is on Pawtucket's website or The Previous minutes (which is a line by line of the last meeting) are approved or fixed prior to the meeting to ensure accurate records. The consent agenda is any item marked with an "*", in this case only item 2 - they vote on all the items at once, so each one does not have to be read, discussed, and voted into the record. and, no, you cannot speak during the meeting. the public input period is held just before the meeting, discussion is between members - usually everything is decided before. Hope this helped a bit.

John said...

Thanks, Joel. The link seems to be the same as the one I found Wednesday evening. It really is helpful.

As for the public input, I was there before the meeting and there was no call for that. The Council moved from license business (I arrived as they were discussing the last one; a "High Holy Day" request for Doherty's East Ave Cafe.), to calling the meeting to order, Pledge of Allegiance, right into the agenda.

Thanks again for your help.

Michael said...

$150,000 to borrow $3,000,000 for 3 months? Is my math wrong or is that equal to 20% annually? Are they putting it on a credit card?