Two years or four?

Johnston Charter Review Commission may recommend switch to longer town council terms

Posted 12/22/23

Editor’s Note: This is the latest story in a series looking at the process of revising Johnston’s Town Charter via the Johnston Charter Review Commission (JCRC).

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Two years or four?

Johnston Charter Review Commission may recommend switch to longer town council terms


Editor’s Note: This is the latest story in a series looking at the process of revising Johnston’s Town Charter via the Johnston Charter Review Commission (JCRC).

If asked whether Town Council terms should double, from two years to four, how would you vote?

That significant change proposal was made briefly, and out of order at the Dec. 7 Johnston Charter Review Commission (JCRC) meeting by Vice-Chairman Fred Iafrate.

He was informed it was too early in the process; the evening’s agenda only covered Articles 1 and 2 of the charter (Basic Provisions and Elections).

Very few alterations were made that night. A motion and unanimous vote supported “gender neutral” language to be amended throughout the town charter.

Commission members bounced ideas and procedure off former Cranston mayor and attorney Allan W. Fung, the JCRC’s legal counsel and joint spokesperson. Fung was hired to represent the JCRC and confirmed his “rate for this engagement is $225 per hour.”

The ‘Mayor’s Mayor’

Members of the fledgling board call Fung “mayor” when they address him in public session. It’s an Ocean State honorific since he’s no longer mayor of Cranston (serving from 2009 to 2021) and Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. was not in attendance but is expected to be at the next JCRC meeting, on Jan. 4, when his office will be on the agenda.

“I was asked by the Mayor (Polisena) to act as counsel for the Johnston Charter Review Commission given my experience with municipal charters and going through two charter reviews in Cranston,” Fung replied last week via email to several questions regarding his hiring and representation of the recently formed JCRC.

Fung was also hired (for $275 an hour) to represent the town in ongoing efforts launched by Polisena to potentially take over Johnston Public School finances.

Attorney William J. Conley Jr. usually represents both Town Council and the School Committee as solicitor. Since the school finance struggle may lead to litigation (between the town and the schools), a potential conflict of interest arose.

The JCRC may make changes to the Town Charter that affect both Town Council and the School Committee (one possible switch may be to change the School Committee from an elected to an appointed board).

When asked why that situation did not pose a potential conflict of interest, Fung, who has also been named “joint spokesperson” for the JCRC, said, “This representation is totally different from the engagement on the school deficit matter where there were adverse parties and the potential for litigation.”

“For attorneys, legal conflicts are governed by Rule 1.7 which outlines our obligations to our clients and who we can and cannot represent,” Fung explained. “In the school matter, Mr. Conley was the solicitor for the town and legal counsel for the Johnston Public Schools. Because of the potential for litigation and the adversarial position of the parties, an attorney cannot ethically represent one client that will be directly adverse to another. That is why I was engaged by the Town, based upon my experience with school deficits, and Mary Ann Carroll was engaged by the schools.”

Fung dismissed the potential for conflict, once the JCRC eventually tackles the section of the charter that governs the formation of the School Committee.

“Here, my client is the Town of Johnston and the Charter Review Commission, which is a board/commission of the town,” Fung wrote. “I represent them and not the Johnston Public Schools. Just because the Commission will discuss the charter provision dealing with the schools in Section 15 doesn’t mean that there is a conflict, whether actual or potential. I have never represented the Johnston Public Schools or the School Committee.”

Fung attended the first three meetings of the JCRC.

Town Council Terms

Reached for comment following the meeting, Polisena said he had “no idea if the commission will end up recommending” a change from two to four years in Town Council members’ terms.

“The switch was made in 2014 to give four-year terms to the mayor,” Polisena explained. “The school committee also has four-year terms as well, so it seems fair the municipal legislative body has the same standard.”

When the town switched to longer mayoral terms, they also added a term limit of 16 years (four terms). The current mayor’s father, Joseph M. Polisena, served all four terms and was replaced at the ballot box by his son and namesake.

“I don’t support term limits for the council,” Polisena said. “They aren’t in Congress. They’re regular people who work regular jobs and they should stay in their position until either they or the voters decide otherwise, same as the school committee.”

The mayor has voiced some support for a switch from elected School Committee members to an appointed board.

Town Council President Robert V. Russo didn’t attend the Dec. 7 JCRC workshop meeting, but weighed in after.

“I was not at the charter review workshop, however I personally prefer the two-year term,” Russo said last week. “I think regardless of whether it’s a 2- or 4-year term, elected officials should and typically are accountable to their constituents. The term length is not determinative of accountability. The town has done well over the years with a 2-year council term, and I rather focus on other provision of the charter that need to be brought to modern times.”

Russo also does not support term limits.

“I am not a proponent of term limits,” Russo said. “I think the voter determines individually on whether to term an elected official out or not.”

Russo was the only Town Council member who responded to requests for comment on the potential change.

Out of School

The JCRC members were appointed by Town Council, Polisena and the School Committee. The commission includes Chairman Richard DelFino Jr., Vice-Chairman Fredrick Iafrate, Nicole Corbin, Steven Mandarelli, (Zoning Board member) Charles I. Ainabe, (School Committee member) Susan Mansolillo, Joseph Andriole, Robert Piscione, Ronald Bianchi, Taylor Russo, Karen Clark, Randy Urena and Arnold Vecchione.

To conclude the meeting, the JCRC’s second-in-command issued a warning for members.

“I’m gonna bring this up tonight. I was deeply disturbed,” Iafrate said. “I read an article in the Sun Rise. And one of our members made statements to the Sun Rise — no disrespect to you, Rory. I know you’ve got a job to do. A week ago, we all voted that any statements from this commission would go through the chair and/or our attorney. I don’t think that was right, what was done. And I would hope that it would not be done in the future by any of our members. Again, I know you got a job, Rory, but we got bylaws and rules. We all voted unanimous …”

The JCRC’s lawyer stepped in.

“I would just … cautionary, because of the Open Meetings Act, we should not be going back and forth on that  … because it’s not on the agenda,” Fung advised Iafrate.

Iafrate nodded in understanding and the meeting was adjourned.

He was referring to comments made by Mansolillo, in a story headlined “Johnston’s Town Charter under review,” from the Dec. 7 edition of the Johnston Sun Rise. Mansolillo is also an elected School Committee member.

The JCRC will meet again at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 4 at the Johnston Senior Center. According to the agenda, the commission will discuss articles III and IV of the Town Charter — “Town Council” and “Mayor.”

Editor’s Note: Watch for more coverage of Johnston’s Charter Review process in future editions of the Johnston Sun Rise. Next up, the Sun Rise will examine the enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure the town Charter is enforced.


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