The council dealt with five items of business at Monday’s meeting, including three that were approved, and two that were held.
On a 5-4 vote, the council overrode the mayor’s veto of an ordinance it passed in September requesting that health care and pension actuaries appear before the council, but Mayor Scott Avedisian again vetoed it. It will automatically go before the council again at the next meeting, but this time the new council will take the vote.
In other action, a resolution regarding veterans’ property tax exemptions unanimously passed, while a resolution requesting the state cap the former Truk-Away Landfill was held until Jan. 23 for further study. It has been on the agenda since September.
An ordinance regarding ward representation in Warwick boards and commissions was additionally held, as Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon noted that because it’s an ordinance, it requires two passages. He felt that the council-elect should get the opportunity to vote on both, with the rest of the council in agreement, including Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who sponsored it.
But the item that garnished the most attention was a resolution related to advertising and design services, which passed 7-2, with Ward 7 Councilman Charles “C.J.” Donovan and Ward 9 Councilman Steven Merolla in opposition.
While Karen Jedson, the head of Warwick’s Tourism, Culture and Development department, appeared before the council last month and explained that the original bid for advertising and design was awarded to Artinium Inc. for $125,000, the project came in under budget at $50,000, meaning they still had about $75,000 left. They want to extend the contract one year at no additional cost to the city.
“I don’t see any problem extending it,” said Ward 8 Councilman Ray Gallucci.
During the Finance Committee meeting, Vella-Wilkinson said Artinium Inc. is doing an “absolutely phenomenal” job with design services. She said as more and more people are investing in smart phones, they are viewing the site through their phones, as well as on their computers.
“There is no distortion when you’re looking at the website from a big screen to an iPhone, and that is because of the type of coding Artinium is using,” she said.
Yet, resident Richard Langseth expressed frustration with the economic development department. He said he has tried to communicate with them, suggesting that they look into a created Linked-In profile, a social media outlet for businesses, but they never got back to him. He feels the department should use the money to create jobs, and doesn’t believe the department is doing so.
“I’m not sure that this $75,000 is targeted in that direction,” said Langseth. “It seems to me it’s more like, ‘Oh, let’s say how great the city is.’ I really think at some point the City Council should look at this issue and try to decide whether we’re an economic development or a tourism department. It’s very, very confusing. Going forward we really need to look at this economic development department and make it into one, rather than this wacky tourism thing.”
Another resident, Roy Dempsey, agreed with Langseth.
“I have no idea what this department does,” he said. “They spent $50,000, with $75,000 they didn’t use. I question giving them anything until they come back to us and explain what positive benefits we’re getting for this amount of money.”
Gallucci explained that the money is derived from the Tourism Department, saying, “We can’t go out and do something else with it.”
As the chair of economic development, Vella-Wilkinson defended the department. She said they have a presence on social media, with more than 4,000 followers on Twitter, in addition to operating a Facebook page, and feels the city is getting “the bang for the buck.” She said Warwick residents don’t see any direct results because the outreach is for people outside of the city of Warwick.
Vella-Wilkinson feels the fact that Artinium didn’t spend the full amount is a good thing, as the company is promoting the city under bid.
“Instead of wasting it, they are saying we can get additional time with it,” she said. “If you want to talk about economic development, Mr. Langseth, you’ve got to have people coming into the city. Culture and tourism is the engine for economic development, not just planning. There’s a totally new model for economic development. Please don’t demean what Karen Jedson and her staff is doing, sir. I don’t like that one bit.”
Langseth told Wilkinson he felt she was criticizing him, and again said he feels the department does not work with people in Warwick who know how to create jobs.
“They have no interest in people in this community,” he said. “All they want to do is make fancy little things and suggest that people go to some restaurant or whatever. We need to have corporations come in, not Twitter.”
In a brief interview at the meeting, Langseth said Linked-In is more of a professional social media outlet in comparison to Twitter and Facebook.
Merolla said, in Council Chambers, that he felt extending the bid wasn’t in the city’s best interest. He described it as a “slippery slope” that would allow no-bid contracts in the future.
“To hand out no-bid contracts is not in the best interest of the taxpayers,” he said. As noted, it passed 7-2, with Merolla and Donovan voting in opposition.
While Solomon voted in favor, he said that the excess money should go into the city’s general fund, as opposed to carrying over to the next year. He also wondered if the full amount was needed in the first place.
As for the ordinance regarding ward representation, Vella-Wilkinson drafted the legislation in hopes to allow a broader representation of the city. Colantuono, as well as Ward 5 Councilman-elect Ed Ladouceur, said they don’t think being from a particular ward should disqualify a candidate. Rather, as long as they possess the ability to serve the city in the best regard. Colantuono has reflected his stance in recent votes for appointments.
But Vella-Wilkinson said people have asked her why they weren’t considered for the boards or commissions. Not only does it provide them with an opportunity to serve the city, it also gives them the chance to add valuable accomplishments to their résumés.
“There are people that are qualified that don’t get the opportunity to participate, and make their skills more commercially viable for jobs that we want to bring into the city,” she said.
She also sponsored the resolution relative to veterans. When the veterans committee reviewed information to see what municipalities throughout the state provided to veterans, she said they found that the city of Warwick was in the bottom third statewide with regard to property tax exemption. The committee recommended doubling the exemption to $2,000.
“When you look at the sacrifices that our veterans make, this is the right thing to do,” Vella-Wilkinson said. The resolution will need approval from the General Assembly.
Ladouceur asked where Warwick would rank if the resolution is approved. Vella-Wilkinson said it would move the city to the middle of the state.
“I would think that would be the least that we should do,” he said, noting that two-thirds of homeless people in America are veterans. “For the city of Warwick, the second largest city in the state, to be the third worst in exemptions for veterans is wrong. That’s just not acceptable.”
Vella-Wilkinson agreed, noting that the committee hopes the council will again review city standings in two years, and consider increasing the exemption even more.
“We wanted to do it in small increments, so as not to overburden people at this time,” she said. “Your point is very well taken.”
She also sponsored the resolution relative to the landfill, along with Merolla, who said they were waiting for information from the Department of Environmental Management to make particular recommendations.
The ordinance requesting an actuary appear before the council passed on a 5-4 vote, with Council President Bruce Place, Ward 1 Councilman Steven Colantuono, Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis and Ward 8 Councilman Ray Gallucci voting against it.
The meeting marked the last in which Place, Ward 5 Councilman John DelGiudice and Gallucci served as elected officials, and Boy Scout Troop 49 Lakewook presented Place with a plaque, thanking him for his service.
The troop also began the meeting by leading the assembly in the Pledge of Allegiance. Place then called for a moment of silence to honor the victims of Friday’s Connecticut shooting. Business then ensued as usual.