NARRAGANSETT— The Narragansett Town Council has declared that a March 3 voter initiative to try to return the town to partisan-based elections of council and School Committee members is invalid.
The council voted 4-1 on April 29 to mark the initiative by resident Win Hames as invalid.
The petition proposed by Hames would reverse the 1988 vote that established nonpartisan elections for both the council and School Committee.
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.
But the timing of the filing sparked questions about the process and the validity of the new petition request.
Hames submitted an identical voter initiative on Sept. 30 that was subsequently approved by the Town Council.
Once approved, Hames had a maximum of 120 days to submit the required number of signatures of qualified electors to the town clerk, in this case about 850.
According to Town Solicitor Mark Davis, on the final day for collecting the signatures, Hames withdrew the September 2019 petition and submitted a new petition identical to the previous one.
Davis said that in withdrawing the Sept. 30 petition on the final day for collecting the required signatures and then submitting an identical petition on March 3, Hames “is attempting to circumvent the very specific requirements set forth in Chapter 4 of the Town Charter.”
That chapter lays out the provisions, procedures and requirements for submitting voter signatures for verification. The procedures as outlined do not require that a date appear beside each signature, Davis said.
“To my knowledge, previous petitions submitted by Mr. Hames had signatures but not dates. Knowing that, and knowing that there’s not a requirement that a date be by a signature, I find this to be a circumvention of the requirements laid out (in the charter), doing an end around the time requirements,” Davis said. “He had the town approval, had 120 days to solicit and obtain the necessary signatures and submit those, and he failed to do so.”
Davis said Hames would have had no reason to pull the initial petition on the day signatures were due if he had the signatures.
“We have no idea how close he was,” Davis said. “Our charter is clear, you have 120 days, you don’t have 240 or 360 days because you keep pulling it and resubmitting it.”
Councilor Jesse Pugh, who voted against rejecting the petition, said that the town should look into requiring dates or some other means of verifying when a person signs a petition.
“Obviously there’s a clear problem with this process if we’re making a judgment call based on what’s possible,” Pugh said.
Davis said improving it is not a bad idea, “but right now, we have what we have.”
Town Clerk Theresa Donovan said the March 3 petition would be unable to get on the general election ballot because of time constraints.
“The process can take as much as 188 days,” Donovan said. The state requires that the town submit questions for the general election ballot no later than Aug. 5, Donovan said.
“Counting back from August 5, 188 days that the process could take, that actually would bring it back to Jan. 30,” she said.
The charter only allows voter initiative questions to go onto general election ballots, she said.