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NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — In the first Town Council meeting since the Nov. 5 Special Election, the future of the Town Hall at 80 Boston Neck Road was still very much on the mind of both councilors and citizens alike Monday night at the Beachwood Senior Center.

The council voted unanimously to allow Town Manager A. Ralph Mollis to enter into negotiations on “commercially reasonable” terms with DBVW Architects regrading plans for the repairs and renovation of Town Hall that fall within the $5 million bond budget approved by voters in 2018, after they rejected an additional $7.5 million bond at the ballot box.

Of the three plans proposed by the architect in 2018, only one plan, referred to as Alternate 2 in the feasibility study, falls within the bond budget, at $3.3 million before escalation or contingency. As proposed, the plan would see the building brought up to code and restored with the addition of council chambers on the second floor and rooms for community activities on the first. 

The topic came up twice during public comment, with Sarilee Norton suggesting to the council that with many in town holding passionate views on the future of Town Hall but not having a clear consensus of what exactly to do, that the town should consider holding a town hall-style forum to hold an open discussion on these issues and allow for citizens and council members to be heard. Diane Izzo mentioned that the issues with the Town Hall were not brought forward to asset management until they had reached a critical status and said she believed the initiative failed due to disagreement among council members and that a successful plan would require a “unified vision” among the members of the Town Council. 

Once the item came up on the agenda, Town Council President Greg Mancini said he believed the town had found a great architect in the firm they had hired and should begin negotiating as soon as possible.

“Everything I’ve heard about this architect is very impressive and subject to the comments of everyone here, my thought would be to empower the Town Manager to enter into negotiations for the commercially reasonable terms with the architect,” Mancini said.

Councilor Mary Brimer said that while she didn’t have concerns with the architect, she wanted to make sure the town knew what exactly they wanted to do with the site before the firm began billing them and agreed with Norton’s idea for an open discussion.

“I think that it benefits us to use (DBVW Architects),” Brimer said. “They’ve already done a lot with drafting design, they’re extremely reputable, but to avoid cost overruns I think we should just slow down a minute.”

Councilor Richard Welch said he needed a clear answer on what the plans for the building are going to be and that while he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the seat of town government returning to 80 Boston Neck Road, he believes it would not be a good idea to relocate all town offices to the site.

“I’ve never been a supporter of putting everybody under one roof, we’ve never had that,” Welch said. The annex (at 150 Fairway Drive) has served us for years and quite frankly there are departments that we need to make easier for people to utilize so everybody doesn’t have to be under the same roof, but that’s an opinion of mine.”

Welch added that while he understands Mollis and others’ opinions on the matter of putting the town government under one roof, he disagreed with them.

“We can have a big discussion about this, but we need a vision for that building,” Councilor Kerry McKay said. 

Councilor Stacey Elliott said her understanding from looking at Alternate 2 was that if the Town Council approved the option as it was, then that would define what the building would be used for.

McKay agreed, but said he couldn’t see the Council Chambers being placed on the second floor as written in the plan. He disagreed with Welch on not wanting to have town business conducted under the same roof.

“If you walk through the Town Hall now, the administration building, you will see a better work environment because everybody’s under one roof,” McKay said. “If you need a question answered, you walk down the hall and you go to their office.”

He felt the building should be secured and given a reason to exist with the Town Council and town boards and commissions utilizing the space.

“I’m completely against putting limited staff back in this building,” McKay said.”I am for having it exist for a reason, and that reason could easily be a Town Council chamber, it could be municipal court, it could be planning, zoning, all of the boards and commissions have a reason to be there after the building has been securitized, video upgraded, systems well maintained. Make it the beautiful building that it always was.”

Brimer agreed with McKay on taking issue with the council chambers being located on the second floor, stating her concerns with public safety in case of an emergency.

“I’m concerned that if the council chambers are on the second floor and there was a fire that the elevators would shut down and there will be difficulty evacuating the building, so for safety reasons alone, I don’t want the council chambers on the second floor,” Brimer said. 

Mancini said he didn’t disagree with Brimer, but wanted to hear the architect’s opinion on the matter.

“I don’t think we should limit him and he had that second floor for a good reason,” Mancini said. “I’d like to hear what that is and I’d like to hear him respond to legitimate concerns, and then from there make a decision.”

Discussion between the council continued for several minutes, with Welch questioning why the town couldn’t use other facilities they already owned, such as the Beechwood Senior Center or the North Kingstown High School Auditorium, for large meetings instead of building another chamber space. Brimer added she would like to see “guard rails” put on the costs of drafting new plans by the architect, hoping to cap it at $25,000 or roughly one-third of what they paid the firm to draft the initial plan in 2018, since these plans would be based off of the previous work.

Despite some disagreements, all councilors agreed the town needed to get the ball rolling on these plans, and approved Mollis to enter negotiations with a 5-0 vote.

Other items on the agenda included the approval of liquor licenses and a pair of shellfish farms, as well as filling several town positions. Interim Director of Water Supply Tim Cranston was nominated by Mollis to take over the position permanently and approved unanimously by the Town Council, while decisions on filling positions on the Library Board of Trustees and appointing a Town Council representative for the Assessment Board of Review were tabled until the Dec. 2 meeting due to not receiving enough applications. 

Nearly all business passed with the full support of the council except the measures to approve extended hours by the new owners of Yorktown Market, with it passing 4-1 with Welch as the objector.

Welch argued that the business had been operating with the extended hours including a 5 a.m. opening and 1 a.m. closing since they first filed paperwork on Nov. 4 rather than waiting for the town’s approval and therefore violating town ordinance. He wished to table the measure until the next meeting, but Mollis expressed concern delaying the measures could force the town to temporarily shut down the business.

The Town Council also had a presentation by Jeff Wilhelm of the Information Technology Advisory Committee on cyber awareness and protecting the town from cyber attacks that have hit other local communities such as Exeter, Newport and Coventry so far this year. 

Wilhelm recommended the town adopts Microsoft 365 Security Suite for cloud-based storage for most of the town’s sensitive information, and encouraged them to work to educate more staff on cyber literacy and how to look out for potential scams. 

The Town Council took special note of the North Kingstown High School football and volleyball teams, with the latter having won its third straight state title and extending its winning streak to 59 games while the former is set to appear in their third straight Super Bowl. 

They also took special note of OSHEAN, Inc., a company which installs fiber optics in local schools, with a citation to celebrate 20 years of Connections that Pioneer Progress and presented and received a donation of $5,000 from the Allen R. Southwick Trust for recreation programs in town.

The next Town Council meeting is slated for Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. at the Beachwood Senior Center.

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