PAWTUCKET—With several comments made about the benefits of “an extra set of eyes,” the City Council on Wednesday voted to engage the services of city resident Alan Tavares as a fiscal watchdog during the upcoming budget process.
The council voted 8 to 0 to accept the volunteer services of Tavares, a retired financial official who lives on Pinecrest Drive. Councilor Jean Philippe Barros had been present at the meeting earlier but left prior to this vote.
Prior to the vote, Council President David Moran explained that because municipal budgets have grown increasingly more complex and “we're not all accountants,” he and other councilors thought it was in their best interests to engage a financial analyst to assist them during the preparation of the new fiscal year's budget and on other financial issues. He added that the city Charter allows the council to engage its own independent officials as it sees fit, and said such an action is not unprecedented.
Moran said that this move was not meant to be adversarial to Mayor Donald Grebien and his administration, but rather, “protects the taxpayer and makes us even more responsible.” He added that Tavares, who has considerable experience with budgets in his 30-year career with the federal Department of Health and Human Services, has agreed to assist the council for free.
Moran said that Tavares, who also served on the last Charter Review Commission and has spoken publicly on various matters at past City Council meetings, will participate in the upcoming budget workshops, review monthly expense reports, and attend the meetings of the City Council's Finance Committee. “We believe we need to have a fiscal analyst. We're not putting up any walls against the administration, but we believe this will be helpful to the council,” Moran stated.
Councilor John Barry, who is also chairman of the Finance Committee, said that the council having its own financial analyst is something that the legislative body is not only entitled to under the charter but also an action “long overdue.” He suggested that if past councils had adopted this strategy, the years where the police and fire pensions went unfunded might not have occurred.
Barry added that he hopes the action is not seen as being “antagonistic” toward the administration, but rather, one which airs the city's true financial picture.
Several other councilors spoke in favor of utilizing Tavares' assistance. Councilor Thomas Hodge noted that in the state Legislature, both the House and Senate have staffs to aid in the budget process, and said it will help the council greatly to have “another set of eyes.”
Councilor Albert Vitali agreed that municipal budgets are becoming increasingly more complicated and thanked Tavares “for agreeing to do this.”
Councilor Lawrence Tetreault commented that he welcomes Tavares' assistance. He added that he hopes Tavares goes to Benny's to stock up on batteries so he can “shine a bright light on this work.”
In another matter signaling underlying discontent between the council and the Grebien administration, Hodge asked for the council's support in obtaining an independent legal opinion to clarify the City Council's authority to approve contracts entered into by the executive
Hodge has voiced strong criticism on the Grebien administration's recent signing of a five-year contract with a private trash hauler without seeking the council's approval. Grebien had cited the contract as being within the purview of an executive order since it involves good and services, while Hodge and other councilors considered it as part of their authority because it involved personnel and the privatizing of a service that has previously been done in-house. The council had been given a copy of the contract with MTG Disposal to review, but Grebien signed it a few days later to finalize it.
Angry about the process, Hodge had sent a letter to the office of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin asking for a legal opinion or guidance in the matter of the City Council's authority to approve contracts entered into by administration.
In a written response to Hodge, Deputy Attorney General Gerald J. Coyne said that because the Attorney General serves as legal counsel to the State of Rhode Island and its agencies, he cannot provide legal advice to a municipality or to a municipal official.
However, Coyne also told Hodge that he acknowledged the effort he had placed in drafting the letter to the Attorney General and that he recognized “as well the seriousness of the issue you have raised.”
Hodge said that based on Coyne's response about the “seriousness” of the matter, he felt the council should continue to seek clarification into its role and authority pertaining to contracts for both municipal and schools. He said the way the contract with MTG Disposal has been handled, “a very bad precedent could be set by not seeking our advice” on contracts going forward.
Again several other councilors agreed with Hodge, including Moran, who said he has questioned other recent contracts that the administration has finalized without first seeking council approval. He said this includes the contract to hire an independent actuary who helped develop the administration's funding improvement plan for the police and fire pension fund.
Moran said that back in October, City Solicitor Frank Milos had interpreted the city Charter to mean that the executive branch did have the sole authority to approve contracts pertaining to goods and services. However, he said that he and other councilors had not expected this interpretation to extend to something like the city's trash services or other similar contracts that could have a big impact on the municipal budget.
Again without Barros, the council voted 8 to 0 to approve Hodge's request that an independent legal opinion be given as to the council's power to approve contracts.
Also on Wednesday, despite all of the attention the matter got in the local news media, a request pertaining to a zoning change that would allow for residents to keep backyard chickens was simply referred to the City Council's Ordinance Committee for review.
When contacted the next day about how the administration feels with having Alan Tavares as a financial analyst for the City Council, Tony Pires, Grebien's director of administration, responded that he thinks it is “a positive thing” for both sides. “Having a better informed council allows them to make better decisions,” said Pires.
Pires added that he has known Alan Tavares for many years, has golfed with him and considers him a friend, and said Tavares' wife, Charlotte, was his campaign manager when he first entered state politics back in the 1980s. He called Tavares “a very competent, able and independent guy” who is the type of person “you can have a difference of opinion with but still be friends.