Editorial: The process is flawed when the public has no voice

Posted 7/28/21

It seems a private group will be consuming the entire footprint of the Barrington government center grounds, enveloping the Town Hall, library and senior center. It will be serving and selling …

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Editorial: The process is flawed when the public has no voice

Posted

It seems a private group will be consuming the entire footprint of the Barrington government center grounds, enveloping the Town Hall, library and senior center. It will be serving and selling alcohol, setting up a giant movie screen, amplifying noise throughout the complex, welcoming in vendors, blocking all parking spaces and inviting hundreds if not thousands of people to a multi-day film festival. We say “it seems” because details were initially scarce and frequently changing.

A mile away, another private group, this one led by a for-profit business, is consuming most of a public park, blocking access to a public boat ramp and also expects to be serving alcohol soon.

Setting aside all commentary on these two events — the two-day social justice film festival and the weekly “block party” may ultimately be wonderful additions to the summer lineup in Barrington — does anyone else want to know more about what’s happening here? How has the Town of Barrington authorized all of these things — alcohol consumption on public property, alcohol sales on public property, exclusive access to public facilities, amplified sound, movie screen, parking impacts, traffic impacts — without even one minute of public review?

Nothing to do with either of these events has passed before any public forum in Barrington. There have been no public hearings, no licensing votes, no reviews, no public permits, not one second of public discussion. There have been zero opportunities for anyone in the public to venture even a single opinion or ask a single question. Nothing has appeared in the public realm whatsoever.

How can this be?

Because the Barrington Town Council has invested the town manager with wide-ranging powers to authorize all of this, on his own, without seeking input or approval from them or anyone else in town.

A couple of years ago, the council passed an amendment to the town ordinance that restricts alcohol consumption on public property. This is the law that says no one can have a beer at the beach.

At the time, an old class from Barrington High School thought it might be fun to hold their small reunion inside the Barrington Town Hall council chambers. They asked for permission to have a few drinks inside Town Hall during their event. Following the town manager’s lead, the council thought it was a fine idea but went one step further. From that point forward, the town manager did not need to ask them for permission. They passed an ordinance amendment that would allow him to say “yes” to alcohol consumption on public property at any time. (Who knew that if you wanted a beer at the beach, you just needed to ask Jim?)

So now the authority once granted to allow a small, private group to consume a few drinks inside a public building on a single night has been expanded to authorize alcohol sales in multi-day, public events — and no one from the town council has raised a peep about it. In fact, when asked, several councilors gave enthusiastic support to the events themselves.

Of course, that’s not the point. The events may be wonderful. The process is the problem.

The town manager does not answer to the public. He is not elected by voters. He works at the pleasure of the town council.

So when he is invested with sweeping powers, and the council fails to involve itself, or ask questions, or place items on their agenda, or hold public hearings, or do anything to bring issues like this into their forum, then the public is entirely shut out of the process. That is not healthy for a small-town government.

If these were small matters, like placement of kayak racks or road repairs, they would be beneath council purview. But many will feel that control of public facilities and alcohol sales on public property are not small matters — or at least they’re large enough to warrant a few minutes of public scrutiny.

Barrington residents never had that chance. Their leaders have shown once again that they know what’s best for Barrington.

2021 by East Bay Newspapers

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Meet our staff
Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.