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Friday, February 24, 2012

Fact-Checking the Charter Revision Committee: Question 4

Stated reason for proposed Town Charter change is not true
By Will Collette

Diligent Progressive Charlestown readers have had to put up with a series I’ve been writing on the proposed changes to Charlestown’s Town Charter that will come up for their first public hearing next Monday, February 27, at 7 PM at Town Hall.

These proposals are being advanced by the town’s Charter Revision Commission (CRC), which has been stacked with members of Charlestown’s resident anti-wind-power group, Ill Wind RI, a close ally of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance.

One of their more innocuous, though puzzling, proposals is Question 4, a long and minutely detailed fine-tuning of town procurement policies. It lowers the point where competitive bidding must take place to $1000.

The CRC minutes give few hints to explain why this change is needed or what problem it addresses. Or why we need to make Charter changes at such a minute level.

The CRC's “Explanation” for the change reads “This amendment will amend the purchasing requirements of the Town to comport with the Rhode Island General Laws [emphasis added] and decrease no bid-no quote purchases from $3000 to $1000.”

When I first read this question and its explanation, I thought, “oh well, if state law requires it….” After all, the definition of comport is to be in agreement, harmony, or conformity.”  Incidentally, in the course of looking for a precise definition of "comport," I discovered that it also means "cake dish." Somehow, I didn't think that was the meaning the CRC had in mind.

The other kind of comport
But does state law really require this change? Do Charlestown’s existing purchasing procedures fail to “comport” with state law?

In fact, Charlestown’s current procedures DO comport with state law and the Rhode Island General Laws do not require the changes proposed by the CRC.

Here’s what the Rhode Island General Laws say about the types of purchases addressed by Question 4:

§ 45-55-9. Small purchases
Procurements, not to exceed an aggregate amount of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for construction and five thousand dollars ($5,000) for all other purchases may be made in accordance with small purchase regulations promulgated by the municipality. These amounts shall be increased or decreased annually hereafter at the same rate as the Boston Regional Consumer Price Index. Procurement requirements shall not be artificially divided so as to constitute a small purchase under this section. A municipality may further reduce the aggregate purchase amount, as provided for in this section by ordinance.

Like all of the other 39 Rhode Island cities and towns, Charlestown may set its own standards provided we keep our crayons within the lines set out in state law. We currently do that, and, if this Question goes to the voters and gets approved, we would still be coloring within the lines.

But do we need to set up such a cumbersome process that we have to re-vamp the way we buy office supplies? By dropping the competitive bidding threshold level from $3000 to $1000, we might save a little on  office supplies, but the savings would be offset by the cost of advertising the bid and the time it would take to set up and process those bids. So maybe W.B. Mason can bid $75 less than Staples on printer toner, but do we really need to spend the money and staff time to get to that point? 

Among the 39 cities and towns, some set the bar for competitive bids and some don’t, as the chart below shows. All “comport” with state law.

This Question, as well as all the other proposed Charter Revision questions, needs to be judged by the voters in terms of whether they are necessary and serve the common good. Amending the Town Charter is like amending the Constitution – it should be done with thoughtfulness and care.

Question Four is NOT required to bring Charlestown into compliance with state law. The CRC has not made the case that this change to the Town Charter is necessary, and it may simply create unnecessary paperwork and extra work for town staff that serves no useful purpose.