Everything you need to know to get involved in Newport government

NEWPORT — Municipal government runs on civic participation, but understanding how to participate at something as common as a City Council meeting can often be complex and daunting for the average citizen. That’s why several new resources are being made to help Newporters navigate their city government and have their voices heard.

After being chosen to chair the City Council, Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong has made it a key aspect of his role to increase citizen engagement and transparency with city government. As a part of this effort, he worked alongside city staff to create explanatory pamphlets detailing how citizens can participate in their municipal government.

“Civic engagement strengthens our community, but between rules of procedure and government terminology City Council meetings can feel hard to follow and intimidating to speak at,” Khamsyvoravong wrote in a statement. “Our hope is that this guide helps our neighbors understand how Council meetings work and how they can have their voice heard.”

Members of the Newport City Council, School Committee and administration meet jointly for a workshop on proposed school regionalization on May 31 at City Hall.
Members of the Newport City Council, School Committee and administration meet jointly for a workshop on proposed school regionalization on May 31 at City Hall.

The new citizen guides will be available in physical copies and online in both English and Spanish. Khamsyvoravong credited the city’s communications officer, Tom Shevlin, for his work on putting the information together.

So, with help from the city’s new citizen’s guides, The Newport Daily News has compiled all the information you need to know to navigate the ins and outs of municipal government and let your voice be heard.

What is Newport City Council and what does it do?

The seven-member City Council is responsible for crafting new city laws, called ordinances, and approving how the city collects and spends tax dollars, which the City Manager is responsible for executing. Three of the councilor’s represent a specific ward in the city, while the other four represent the city as a whole. More information on each member, including which council represents which ward, can be found on the city’s website.

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Newport City Council meetings are open to the public and held on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month in the council chambers at City Hall (43 Broadway). The chambers are on the second floor and elevators are available on the side of the building closest to Thompson Middle School.

How do I get Newport City Council to address an issue or topic I care about?

Newport City Council solicits public input in several ways. Citizens can reach out to a City Council member, send a letter or email to the City Clerk no later than 12 p.m. on the day of the meeting, or comment on an agenda item directly through the city’s Granicus Content website.

What’s on the agenda and how do I read it?

City council meetings can be hard to follow without knowing how to read an agenda. The city has several ways for citizens to view what is going to be on the agenda:

1. The city’s Clerkbase website will typically post the agenda a week in advance with links to each agenda item so citizens can read supporting information. It also serves as an archive for previous meetings’ agendas and minutes, resolutions and ordinances.

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2. In addition to posting the agenda with links to supporting documents the city’s Granicus Content website also hosts livestreams of the meetings and posts videos of previous meetings.

3. The Rhode Island Secretary of State website also posts Newport City Council meetings, but without links to supporting documents. However, it also posts the agendas for every public meeting in the state, including the city’s boards and commissions meetings.

Agendas are split into six sections: the citizen’s forum, the consent calendar, appointments to boards and commissions, resolutions, ordinances and communications from the City Manager.

The citizen’s forum is a way for people to address topics or issues not on the agenda. Citizens can sign up for the citizen’s forum to speak in-person by talking to the City Clerk before the meeting.

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The consent calendar is composed of items that require little discussion, such as previous meeting minutes, reports, communications from citizens and some license renewals. Councilors can pull items from the consent calendar to discuss them separately.

Appointments to Boards and Commissions are made when there are vacancies at one or multiple of the city’s boards, authorities, advisory commissions. Volunteers staff these government bodies and typically make decisions or recommendations to the city council on legislative actions they can take to improve specific aspects of the city. For more information on what Boards and Commissions the city has, or how to be appointed to a position, check out the city’s printable guides on the topic.

There are several reasons councilors might draft and introduce resolutions at a meeting. They are the voice of the council, often used to direct the City Manager and city staff to take action, such as provide recommendations for a future ordinance or establish a new committee. Council also uses resolution to honor former councilors or city employees, recognize holidays, support state legislation, and set up council workshops, among other things.

An ordinance is a municipal law approved by the city council. All ordinances are listed in the city’s Code of Ordinances and require the council to consider and vote to be approved twice before they’re formally adopted. These consideration and votes are called “readings” and agendas will list which reading an ordinance is on next to the item.

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Finally, communications from the city manager are often financial items which require council approval or status updates on Council projects and requests.

Newport City Council also serves as the city’s Board of License Commissioners, where they approve business licenses. The council will often adjourn as council and reconvene as the Board of License Commissioners at the end of a city council meeting.

How do you know if something was approved or rejected?

Additionally, Newport City Council follows a set of rules for conducting meetings called “Robert’s Rules of Order,” which uses specific language to convey what actions are being taken by the council.

The most common process for councilors to approve or reject what is being proposed by an agenda item goes as follows:

A councilor first makes a motion, or “moves” for the council to take a vote. This is the most common phrase used by counselors, and it signals to the rest of the council what action they want to take. Often you will hear councilors say something similar to the phrase, “I motion to approve this item.”

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After a motion is made, it requires a second from someone else on the council. If the motion is not seconded, it is considered “dead” and the council will not vote on the item.

If the item is seconded, the council discusses the motion. Typically, councilors will address their thoughts on the item and why they plan to vote for or against the motion. If a councilor thinks enough debate has been had on the topic, they can motion to “call the question,” which will end discussion and require a vote to immediately take place if seconded and approved by the rest of council.

Finally, the council votes on the item and the motion passes if more than half of the council present votes in favor of the motion. In Newport, that means four out of the seven councilors need to vote in favor for a motion to pass.

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Newport City Council guide to getting involved in government actions