The Block Island Times

Council weighs in on past year

All say it's been “challenging”
By Stephanie Turaj | Oct 13, 2013
Photo by: Kari Curtis

Almost a year has passed since this Town Council took office, and most councilors agree that this time has been difficult. When asked by The Block Island Times their thoughts on the council’s progress, almost every councilor responded that “it’s been a learning curve.”

Each councilor has plans to address several issues within the next year, but we asked them what they felt has been accomplished so far.

First, here’s a look at the votes made since the five members of this Town Council — First Warden Kim Gaffett, Second Warden Ken Lacoste, Councilor Chris Warfel, Councilor Sean McGarry and Councilor Norris Pike — took seat on Dec. 3, 2012.

Within the past 10 months, the new Shoreham Town Council has made more than 190 motions at its meetings, which range from routine matters to amending several ordinances.

Routine matters include accepting a monthly police report, appointing new members to town committees and boards (it made seven appointments), granting and transferring taxi licenses (four appointments or transferals, as well as an approval of the whole taxi license list), and granting special event license waivers (more than seven votes were made about special events).

Although technically a “routine” matter — the council is responsible for drafting each fiscal year’s budget — the council spent several months working on the fiscal year 2014 budget, which is about $12 million, and a motion on the final budget was made by the council in April.

As far as ordinance changes, a long discussion began when the council voted to renew a Hawker’s and Peddler’s license for an applicant, but this same vendor was not a year-round resident. The council then spent the next five months discussing the Hawker’s and Peddler’s Ordinance. In September, the council voted to amend the ordinance to require any license holders to be year-round island residents.

There were other ordinance changes, including limiting the number of yacht clubs allowed to have town moorings and changes to town zoning ordinances regarding multi-family complexes.

Other votes included approving a one-year management agreement with the Block Island Health Services (BIHS). This was approved on Jan. 7, early in the council’s term.

Also early on in the term, on Dec. 18, the council voted 3-2 to support Deepwater Wind. The council voted to send a positive statement from the Electric Utilities Task Group (EUTG) to agencies that are responsible for permitting Deepwater’s proposed wind farm. McGarry and Warfel were opposed.

This was the last time the council took a significant vote regarding Deepwater Wind. However, the council did hire a consultant, Stanley White Engineering, to research Deepwater’s decommissioning proposal. The council has also made several requests to the EUTG about issues that should be looked into. It has asked the EUTG, in formal motions, to do the following:

• Investigate how much it would cost to perform a study on a stand-alone cable. Also, investigate the option for having “indigenous” renewable energy generation.

• Look into the Block Island Power Company’s net metering policy.

• Investigate the town possibly purchasing streetlights, the cost of BIPCo converting to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), and to look at the Block Island Power Company’s load shape.

• Develop a Request for Proposal (RFP) for solar energy projects.

• Perform an analysis on Deepwater Wind’s cost.

In addition, the council spent months discussing Weldon’s Way, and made several motions about how to handle traffic congestion and potential safety issues on this road. Several votes were made, including one asking Councilor Chris Warfel and the Police Chief to work with the moped dealers on this road. Also voted on was to look into placing a police detail on this road.

One issue that the council seemed to revisit often involved Interstate Navigation and the proposed fast ferry from Quonset, R.I. Several votes were made about the rate case before the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to change Interstate’s rates. The council also voted not to support the Quonset ferry proposal.

On the deer issue, the council voted in April to accept the Deer Task Force’s proposed Skidaway Plan (a managed deer hunt) in concept. However, after the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) seemed to reject this concept, the council voted for assistance from the DEM to manage the deer herd.

More than three months were spent discussing Town Manager Nancy Dodge’s job performance and contract, and several motions were made, with her final contract approved by the council in a 3-2 vote on Oct. 7.

On March 4, the council moved to table an item to draft a resolution about gun safety, but never returned to this item.

Also, several past motions have had no further discussion since: research to establish a port authority; asking the Recreation Board to revise its mission; the Police Chief and Councilor Sean McGarry looking into establishing a curfew for minors; and asking the Conservation Commission to look into the possibility of solar-powered trash compactors.

After reviewing the votes over the past year, The Block Island Times interviewed each of the councilors separately about their thoughts about the Town Council — what’s gone well, what hasn’t, and how things look moving forward. Here’s what they had to say.

First Warden Kim Gaffett

“It’s been a challenge,” said First Warden Kim Gaffett. “Sometimes challenges are good. It’s a whole new group, and it takes time to learn how to work together.”

One of Gaffett’s concerns is that the council “takes too long on minor issues,” such as the Hawker’s and Peddler’s ordinance amendment, which she gave as an example.

Gaffett acknowledges that she has heard complaints over the years — she’s been First Warden for the past seven years — that she lets too many audience members speak. “That adds time to a meeting,” she noted.

But Gaffett also said the council simply debates issues that should not need debate, such as discussing the monthly police report.

Despite the challenges, what does Gaffett think has been accomplished over the past year?

“I don’t think any one council has accomplished anything by itself,” she said. “Anything we’re working on has a continuum to an extent. I think it takes years and years of work. Some things we start, like the infrastructure committee — we might not know if it’s successful until years later.”

However, there are a few issues that Gaffett believes have been making positive progress, and she gave the deer issue as an example.

“The deer issue is progressing pretty well,” said Gaffett. “I think we’re making real progress, and there is active communication between the council, Cathy Sparks [of the DEM] and the Deer Task Force. The Deer Task Force and DEM are on the verge of giving us a plan they’ve been working on.”

Going forward, Gaffett would like to see the deer issue move to “a real plan, with goal setting.” She noted even this plan is going to take three to five years to fully implement, but she wants to get a start on it within the next year.

Also going forward, Gaffett noted that she would like to focus on preserving the health and safety of the Great Salt Pond, increase energy efficiency in town buildings and negotiate with the Block Island Power Company on its net metering policy.

“I know it’s been [almost] a year and we’re still learning how to work together,” she added, “But I’m optimistic. We all want to be productive and do good things for the town and its residents.”

Second Warden Ken Lacoste

“I think it’s been a year of growing pains,” said Second Warden Ken Lacoste. “It’s been a difficult year, as people try to get used to working together. It’s been somewhat frustrating at times with the length of the meetings, and the detail to which we seem to have to delve into things.”

However, Lacoste did say the council has accomplished a few important things. He noted that there has been “positive” progress made on developing a plan to reduce the deer herd on Block Island. He also said that the town council’s relationship with the Block Island Health Services (BIHS) board has improved over the past year.

“Obviously, there’s been setbacks too,” he said. Particularly, he said he wished the town manager issue had been resolved more expediently than it was.

But Lacoste also said the council is working to move in the right direction. For example, it has established a “punch list,” which is a lengthy list of many agenda items and projects the council is working on. At its monthly work sessions, the council plans on discussing each of these items.

“The punch list should reflect everything we should be concerned about,” said Lacoste. “But the punch list is kind of taking its own persona; it’s going to need its own zip code soon... time will tell whether it’s for better or for worse, but we’d like to think it’s for the better.”

What is on Lacoste’s personal punch list? For one, Lacoste would like to create a separate public works director position, the role that the town manager is currently performing in addition to the town manager duties. “I’ve said all along that I think there’s too much on the town manager’s plate,” he explained. “The things that are public works related might be more suited to someone public works-orientated.”

He also noted: “I think there’s a lot of projects that are in the works that are going to be accomplished soon, such as the Old Harbor dock and the beach pavilion, which are on the cusp of getting repairs done,” he said.

As for the argument that many of the issues the council has been working on — for example, changes to the town Hawker’s and Peddler’s ordinance — seem to be taking months or longer to be completed, Lacoste said this is part of the process.

“Sometimes things take longer than people think they should, but a lot of times there are underlying reasons for why things drag on, such as federal and state funding,” he explained. “We have to be careful that we have all our ducks in order.”

But, at the same time, Lacoste noted there’s a fine line between managing policy and “micromanaging” town policy, and he hopes to steer clear of micromanaging.

Councilor Sean McGarry

“It’s been a struggle — that’s for sure,” said Town Councilor Sean McGarry. “But I think we’ve got everyone on track now. We’ve put all the items that we’re looking at onto a punch list — since that’s been posted, I don’t expect to see things slip through the cracks anymore.”

Up until now, however, McGarry seems to think that some issues have slipped through the cracks.

“I still have a lot of the same frustrations I had going into the election,” he said. “The progress at the beach pavilion, and the bathrooms at Ball O’Brien picnic shelter still haven’t been remedied, nor has the situation on Corn Neck Road... It seems like these projects just drag on forever.”

Part of the issue, McGarry claimed, is the composition of the council agendas: “We haven’t addressed a lot of content. Our agendas have been loaded with fluff. We spent four months talking about the Hawker’s and Peddler’s ordinance and about construction projects, when we should have been getting a handle on the capital budget.”

In addition, McGarry said part of the “fluff” on council agendas includes issues that could be handled administratively instead of going before the council. McGarry gave two such examples: requests to waive special event license denials because applications were submitted past the deadline, or requests to waive application fees for non-profit organizations.

“If we could clear our agenda of a lot of items handled administratively, then we could deal with more policy issues,” he said. “I think we are making this move — the council should be concentrated on policy-making.”

There are a few issues in particular McGarry would like to focus on: increasing public access to council meetings and information, fighting the Deepwater Wind project but also finding a way to get a stand-alone transmission cable to Block Island, and managing the deer herd.

“On the deer issue, we voted to endorse the Modified Skidaway Plan, which calls for a series of managed deer hunts, but then the DEM [Department of Environmental Management] chimed in, and the council decided to put on hold those efforts,” explained McGarry. “It appears that the DEM is going to sponsor managed hunts that mirror the Modified Skidaway Plan. If not, I’ll stand fully prepared to initiate that Modified Skidaway Plan.”

However, McGarry noted that while he is doing his best and voting the way he feels right, “I’m only one vote.”

Councilor Norris Pike

“I think we’re doing the best we can,” said Councilor Norris Pike. “I think it’s been a bit of a tough learning curve. We’re getting used to the way everyone works together. In retrospect, I think we’ve done some things well and others not so well.”

As far as what has been handled “not so well,” Pike agreed with other councilors that it’s been a struggle for the entire council to get along.

“I think we’re learning how to work together,” he explained. “We’re getting through the learning curve, about how we interact. Sometimes we don’t interact very well.”

Particularly, he noted, councilors haven’t interacted well when it comes to the issue of the town manager — a debate which has continued over the past three months and resulted in several split votes about Town Manager Nancy Dodge’s job performance and contract.

“Dealing with the town manager issue has been tough,” he said. “Personally, I think my goals are to get this manager contract out of the way and get going, so we’re working nicely again.”

So, what does Pike think the council has done well? He believes the “day-to-day” matters — or as he called it,  tongue-in-cheek, the “day-to-day baloney” — has been handled well. And he believes that these routine matters are the things the council should be focusing on.

“In theory, we do both policy-making and steer things along in a comprehensive direction,” said Pike. “But as far as earth-shattering change, i.e., port authorities, I don’t see that happening. Sometimes no change is better than some change.”

What is the role of the council going forward?

“I think the best we can do at this point is keep going in a level direction; I think that’s the best we can do,” he said. But, he added that one of his goals is to “make sure Deepwater Wind keeps going in the right direction. I just want to make sure it happens.”

Another priority of Pike’s is working with ferry company Interstate Navigation to establish better service for year-round island residents, such as increased wintertime ferry service.

“I’d like to get a lot of this solved before they go to the PUC [Public Utilities Commission] again,” he said. “I always felt direct negotiation [with Interstate] was a more effective approach.”

And as for addressing concerns about tourism services on-island: “I think we’re doing the right amount,” he said, explaining that it’s a balancing act of creating the right atmosphere for tourists, but not “sweeping up every last crumb behind tourists.”

Councilor Chris Warfel

“I’m disappointed about what it takes to get things done,” said Councilor Chris Warfel. “And the way the council addresses and prioritize issues.”

When asked what issues specifically weren’t prioritized correctly, Warfel responded that the council spent months working on the Hawker’s and Peddler’s ordinance, but has not properly looked into some of the issues relating Deepwater Wind. Echoing other councilors, Warfel also said he was “disappointed with how the town manager evaluation process was handled.”

He also said that many issues the council deals with take too long. To address this, he hopes the council will “vigorously” direct other boards and commissions to respond to the council’s requests.

“I think things are not taking the right amount of time,” he added. “I think it’s taking far too long — we’re very slow to react, and I think we need to react faster.”

In contrast, Warfel spent a moment thinking about some of the things that the council has done well, and noted that there is WiFi available at Town Hall for the councilors, and the council has now established its punch list to keep track of its concerns.

“The council theoretically should be a policy-making body, not day to operations,” said Warfel. “But I believe they [day-to-day operations] are problematic... If the problems were going away we’d be doing more blue sky work. I hope we can do much more policy going forward.”

What are some things going forward that Warfel would like to address?

For one, Warfel said he was looking at the town’s emergency preparedness plan to include better plans for “dealing with an emergency situation such as a hurricane.”

He also said he wants the council to work on “understanding the budget better and having the capital program in place that we discussed, where we properly capitalized our capital projects.”

In addition, Warfel would like to “see the town integrate better with the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Council, to see if we can leverage our individual resources and come up with ideas.” (See related story.)

He added: “The Town Council doesn’t have all the knowledge — the employees and the residents are a valuable resource.”

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