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Council Opens The Door on Four Year Terms

A lingering topic since they were passed by the voters in 2012, the charter amendments enacting four year terms for the city council and school committee were a hot topic at the February 20th Council meeting.

Former Councilwoman Chrissy Rossi addressed the matter and the history of amendments during the Communications portion of the meeting, finding general agreement from Councilmen Botelho and Faria. Botelho himself came with research he had been doing since the beginning of the council term. During the early days of the term he also questioned the issue of the four year terms and cautioned the potential for the same to happen to the mayoral form of government warning that it could "vanish in the mist."

The 2012 ballot question, which passed by 54%, would have granted four year terms to the council and school committee starting in 2014. However, they were never codified as part of the city charter. The matter was put before the General Assembly for ratification at the behest of the city's Law Department, based on their interpretation that the change in terms would violate the state's plenary power over elections unless a special act was passed. The legislation passed both chambers but was never transmitted to the Governor for signature. Botelho questioned that maybe it wasn't signed by the Governor because someone realized it wasn't necessary. The Governor's report on Home Rule Charters in 2013 recognized four year terms in East Providence.

Botelho and Rossi both take the position that the terms of office are a matter of governance, and is only incidental to elections, not a true matter of elections reserved to the General Assembly such as the time and place of elections. Botelho cited several decisions in which the state courts had decided that matters of term of office, councilmanic districts and other matters are a matter of local control, not a state election matter.

In regards to the election ballots, according to Botelho, the courts have held that once an error is discovered it must be acted upon, even if there procedural errors over a period of years.

Rossi also brought up the matter that the state's general laws regarding school committees indicates that school committee members serve four year staggered terms. Education is another plenary power of the state. It raised the question of how a charter amendment that would bring the charter in compliance with the state's general laws would require a special act.

After a thorough discussion, the council decided to move forward on the matter for legal review, potentially by a court.