Dodge talks almost overUnhappiness lingers
After more than three months of discussion about Town Manager Nancy Dodge’s job performance, the issue seems to be coming to a close. At its latest meeting, the Town Council approved a final contract in a 3-2 vote. Even though the contract was approved on the council level, it still has to be approved and signed by Dodge.
The discussion has been contentious, with Dodge receiving mixed reviews from councilors. Two councilors, Sean McGarry and Chris Warfel, have been critical of her performance — McGarry at multiple points has called for a transition to a new town manager — and McGarry and Warfel voted against the final contract. First Warden Kim Gaffett, who voted reluctantly because she was in favor of a longer contract term, Second Warden Ken Lacoste and Councilor Norris Pike voted in favor of the contract.
At the council’s Monday, Oct. 7 meeting, the controversial discussion continued with a long debate over Dodge’s salary.
Dodge’s contract is for a nine-month period, and she will be paid $3,770 every two weeks, which would translate to a yearly salary of $93,939.30. This is the salary that was included in the town budget for fiscal year 2014.
However, Warfel and McGarry questioned this amount, arguing that Dodge should not be given a raise simply because it was included in the town budget.
“The argument that it’s there because it’s in the budget — that’s not going to float with me,” said McGarry.
“In the budget, there was a line item that was 3 percent pay raise, effective July 1,” responded Dodge. “I relied on that line item — that same line was passed at the financial town meeting and that is what I’ve been paid, because you voted on it.”
Warfel argued that Dodge should not have received this pay raise.
“I would never have had an expectation that when a contract expires that you would get a pay increase,” he said.
“I think our Town Manager gets paid very well,” Warfel continued. He said he did his own analysis of what town managers were paid throughout Rhode Island. Based on his analysis, he refuted previous claims that Dodge is paid a comparable amount to other town managers. He noted that his analysis was percentage-based, by comparing the salaries to the overall town budget. Block Island’s budget this year was about $12 million and Dodge salary is $93,939.30.
“I believe what’s in the draft contract is fair,” said First Warden Kim Gaffett. “But if you don’t want that number, make a suggestion.” At first, no one made a suggestion, and the council kept veering off track in its discussion.
Eventually, Warfel made a suggestion: “I think we pay pretty well,” he said. “I would like to propose a 1.5 percent pay increase, which would be a bi-weekly amount of $3,713.”
However, this motion did not pass; it was a 2-3 vote, with Warfel and McGarry voting for.
Gaffett then moved “to offer the contract that we drafted to Dodge, as it exists, with a bi-weekly salary of $3,770, a 3-percent pay increase over last year.”
This motion passed 3-2, with Warfel and McGarry voting against.
“It’s the principle of things,” said Warfel. “The town really needs to tighten up the way it does things.”
This discussion, with more than a few sidebars, lasted about an hour. For example, McGarry reviewed Dodge’s payroll records over the past year and asked questions about certain amounts Dodge had been paid.
The council also debated whether all town employees should receive the same pay increase, or whether pay raises should depend on performance. Dodge’s salary is a 3-percent increase over last year, and all town employees received this same 3-percent increase.
Island resident Socha Cohen later remarked: “You’re talking about two issues. The whole issue of whether people should be paid different amounts, that’s a whole separate topic that should be discussed separate from Nancy’s position.”
At the meeting the council also voted to approve six performance goals for Dodge. These goals passed in a 4-1 vote, with Councilor McGarry voting against. He explained he was against the goals because they didn’t include his proposal “to transition into a new town manager.”
The six approved goals are: complete performance evaluation of all town department heads by January; provide weekly updates of various town projects to the town council; provide updates to the council of these projects at their monthly work session; maintain employee contracts (i.e. monitoring sick and vacation time); look at town issues including parking, Great Salt Pond pollution, bike paths and hedges and walls; and establish a process for monitoring administration of town buildings and capital projects by creating a master directory of where to find files.
McGarry also called for more “analysis” provided to the council at meetings, to which Dodge asked: “Is that a goal, or is that just a mode of operating?”
Island resident Rosemarie Ives addressed the council, and said, “You need to get clearer about what your expectations are.”
Resolution regarding Interstate
The Town Council also voted to send a letter to various state officials, including Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, asking that the Town of New Shoreham have more input at future Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hearings.
This letter explains the results of the rate case that was approved earlier this year by the PUC, which allowed ferry company Interstate Navigation to, among other changes, raise its rates on freight by 34 percent — many island residents spoke against this increase.
The Town Council letter said: “The problem with this rendered decision lies with its effects on Block Island and its economy.”
The letter also said: “We would ask you to use any opportunity to further our position and bolster our influence during future PUC rate/service cases and judgments.”
The council voted to officially form a town infrastructure committee, which was suggested by councilor Warfel. The goal of this committee is to evaluate the electrical, mechanical and physical condition of town buildings; develop a report conveying the status of the buildings; and develop a three- and seven-year plan for building maintenance.
Island resident Rosemarie Ives spoke in opposition to the committee, and instead suggested the council hire a consultant to evaluate town buildings.
“I have seen committees’ lives go on and on,” said Ives. “Many town committees are not staffed properly and become secretarial support.”
Councilor Warfel disagreed. “I don’t want to ask the town to spend more taxpayer dollars with the discussion not going anywhere,” he said. “Sometimes our residents are more qualified than the ‘so-called’ experts.”
Town Clerk Fiona Fitzpatrick noted that even though the town would not pay for an expert, it would still have to pay for a clerk to take minutes at the committee meetings.
The council voted to grant the Spring House Hotel a temporary permit to operate a winter restaurant. Spring House Managing Director Dave Houseman explained that the plan is to offer a 20-seat restaurant in the Spring House barn, which has been renovated to include a commercial kitchen.
“Island life is a tough place to live in the middle of January, so to have a nice option to eat isn’t a bad thing,” said Councilor Norris Pike.
Also, the council agreed to approach the Block Island Power Company (BIPCo) about net metering, and negotiate with BIPCo to change its policies. Net metering is a policy that credits customers that produce energy (for example, privately-owned solar panels). Currently, BIPCo is exempt from net metering regulations set by the R.I. Public Utilities Commission. The company does, however, voluntarily provide net metering.
Town Solicitor Katherine Merolla reported that a dispute between the Town of New Shoreham and Block Island Recycling Management (BIRM), which operates the town transfer station, has been resolved. The town believed that BIRM owed the town $13,131.28 in usage fees. There was a dispute between the two parties as to whether BIRM was responsible for paying these or whether the fees could be covered because of an agreement with the Rhode Island Resource Recovery program.
The Town Council voted to send a letter to the Rhode Island Department of Health (DoH), asking for assistance with the Lyme disease issue on Block Island. The letter asks the DoH to work with the Block Island Medical Center, the council and the Deer Task Force to provide education about tick-borne diseases such as Lyme.
The council unanimously approved a flood ordinance, which lists flood hazard zones on Block Island and requirements for the different areas. First Warden Kim Gaffett, calling this a “bureaucratic change,” said this ordinance already existed, but previously was a zoning ordinance instead of a general ordinance. The council also approved amendments to town zoning maps, depicting new flood zones according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines. There were no major changes to the maps, said Gaffett.
There was a lengthy discussion about the process the council uses to compile the capital budget. The council agreed to work with the town Planning Board to compile a list of capital projects the council should consider for next year’s budget.
Also, the council accepted the police reports for August and September. Councilor Sean McGarry noted the number of acknowledged alarms almost doubled in September compared to August. Town Manager Nancy Dodge explained that September was when alarm testing was often done.
The council adjourned its meeting in closed session to discuss two ongoing lawsuits: TNS vs. Filippi et al “Old Harbor Triangle,” and Waste Haulers BI, LLC vs. Block Island Recycling Management, Inc, et al “Transfer Station Litigation.” The council made one motion in closed session regarding the Transfer Station Litigation. It did not disclose the nature of the motion.