Town Council debates protocols
A debate on how members of the Town Council should be able express their opinions as private individuals — outside of their capacities as elected officials — grew heated at a work session on Wednesday evening, May 29.
First Warden Kim Gaffett had placed the item “Town Council protocols/guidelines/ethics laws re public comments as individuals, reports to Town associated entities, requests for information from boards/committees, employees/consultants” on the agenda for the session.
Two actions appeared to precipitate the discussion, both taken by Councilor Chris Warfel. Other council members apparently had not been informed when Warfel addressed a Washington County Council of Governments group regarding the Deepwater Wind project, and Gaffett wanted to clarify that when Warfel spoke publicly on an issue on which he disagreed with a council decision, he needed to make it known his views were his own, and that he was not speaking on behalf of the council.
“I can dissent and divulge to the public as an individual,” Warfel said. Councilor Sean McGarry agreed with him, accusing Gaffett of being influenced by her “preference” for Deepwater Wind.
Warfel had also sent a memo to the Deer Task Force (DTF) asking them to change the goal of their charge to reduction of the deer herd only, rather than eliminating the herd entirely. While Warfel maintained he was only making a request to the DTF, Gaffett said the memo read as a directive and he should have discussed that at a town council meeting first. “It’s not right to write to committees to tell them what to do as an individual instead of at the council,” she said.
Agreeing with Gaffett, Councilor Norris Pike asked how the council can act as a group if members do not report back and get each others’ input as well as a vote on an issue. McGarry, however, supported Warfel. “I applaud you on being aggressive and I don’t like you being reigned in,” McGarry said.
Warfel told Gaffett that he would take her comments “to heart and try overtures to the town council first,” but he reserved his right to make his individual opinions known. “If the council voted not to ask them [the deer task force to change their charge], I still would,” Warfel said.
While apprising the new council of their protocol, Gaffett also reviewed their relationship to town employees. Council members, she told them, do not direct or assign work to town employees except through the town manager. Only the council directs the town manager.
Town Solicitor Katherine Merolla, who attended the work session, read aloud the ordinance governing town council powers and duties.