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NARRAGANSETT — The Narragansett Town Council declared Monday that a petition by resident Win Hames that seeks to end the nonpartisan election of Town Council and School Committee members is legally valid and can proceed.

If the petition gains enough signatures to be placed on the 2020 ballot and ultimately passes, it would reverse the 1988 vote that established nonpartisan elections for both the council and School Committee.

Three council members – President Matthew Mannix, and councilors Patrick Murray and Jesse Pugh – voted in the affirmative, while members Jill Lawler and Rick Lema abstained.

The proposed change to the town charter also would have candidates names appear unnumbered on the ballot. Voters would choose five candidates for council from any of the parties represented or from independent candidates.

Town Solicitor Mark Davis wrote in a memo that he found the petition to be legally permissible, and recommended that the council find it to be valid.

“This is the very first step in the initiative process,” Mannix said. “The next step would be the collection of signatures.”

Those signatures would then be submitted to the town clerk and to the Board of Canvassers to be verified.

“I think every voter needs to know as much information as they can about the people who are running,” Hames said. “This is another way of knowing about the candidates.”

Hames, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, also is working on wording for another petition, to recall elected officials in town.

While the council voted to find the latest petition valid, council members and some residents voiced reservations about its effectiveness.

Mannix called it a “step backward” to “machine politics” from the town’s reform-minded turn to a nonpartisan election.

“It’s something that encourages a more informed electorate,” Mannix said of the nonpartisan election. “People have to go out and look at the issue positions, look at the background of the individual candidates. It encourages people to be more attuned to the election instead of check off a list of Democrats or Republicans.”

He also asked Hames to re-think the petition, given that each initiative put forward requires “a lot of work by the town staff.”

Mannix said the town clerk estimated that each initiative requires a total of 84 hours of staff work, and that Hames has already submitted three initiatives that are being or have been worked on.

Resident Al Alba said he doesn’t support the “labeling” of candidates as either Republican or Democrat.

“I think we should judge the person and what they stand for,” he said. “I feel it’s in the best interest of our town not to have any labeling.”

Lawler said that several speakers at the council meeting spoke eloquently about why the petition should not be valid, and that she agreed with them.  

Pugh said he enjoyed campaigning in the nonpartisan election last year.

“However, the Town Council should not be in the role of controlling how the elections work in town,” he said. “The people of the town decide whether they want it to be partisan or not.”

He said, however, that the petition is legal and should go forward.

Murray said he agreed with Mannix that going to partisan elections would be “a step backward.”

“I think we just leave it the way it is,” he said. “I have to validate this initiative because our attorney has said it is legally valid.”

An attempt by Mannix to continue the measure for two weeks failed, after Davis said the charter requires the council to act on its validity “at the next regularly scheduled Town Council meeting, which is this one.”

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