On Wednesday, the Newport City Council received a 171-page report with suggested changes to the city’s charter that could significantly impact Newport’s seven-person city council, if implemented. The report was written by the Charter Review Commission, a volunteer group the city assembled last winter to consider updates to Newport’s charter, which was last revised in 2014.

Following 14 open meetings with public comment, the group’s final report calls for term limits to prevent councilors from serving more than four consecutive terms. If enacted, that could disqualify multiple longtime members of the council from seeking reelection, including current mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, who has continuously held a seat on the council since 1999.

The report also addresses a long-running debate over how Newport’s mayor is chosen. Under the current charter, the City Council selects one of its members to serve as mayor for each two-year term. In 2020, the Council chose the current mayor by a 4-3 vote, and some have blamed this early dividedness for lasting internal tension. The Charter Review Commission is instead recommending the position go to the highest vote-getter across the city.

The Council has yet to formally review or discuss the report, but councilor Kate Leonard expressed early disagreement with some recommendations at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I personally think that the council should choose its own chair because he or she needs to have good people skills in order to get along with other voting members of the council,” she said.

Currently, three members of the council are elected by each of Newport’s three geographic wards. The new report suggests that all council members should instead be chosen by the whole city, in part to discourage councilors from solely focusing on the interests of their respective neighborhoods.

“The future issues facing the City are such that a holistic viewpoint will be necessary to tackle them,” the commission wrote, “and an at-large system will allow councilors to concern themselves with the problems of the entire community.”

Anticipating disagreement around these proposals, the commission’s report calls for the City Council to put two issues — how the mayor is chosen, and whether there are ward-specific councilors — to a public vote in November.

“The Commission strongly recommends that these two issues be resolved by a public ballot in the next election, as neither the Commission nor the Council should decide these two issues absent of the voters,” the report reads.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Mayor Napolitano expressed initial openness to the proposals, saying, “I leave it up to the voters. What the voters choose is what's important in our charter.”

The report’s other suggestions include to adopt an official Code of Ethics for city officials. The Charter Review Commission also recommends adding language that the City Council should appoint a “diverse group of individuals” to the Newport Planning and Zoning Boards, but does not specify how to measure diversity.

Newport’s city solicitor will next review the legality of all potential changes before the City Council decides which to submit for voters’ approval on November’s ballot. Then will come the challenge of informing the public about the proposals and the reasoning behind them.

“Once we make the decision on whichever items we want to put on the ballot, [we should] also request that the city staff do an educational campaign on what those items are — because I know that these types of things can be confusing,” said Councilor Jamie Bova. “Regardless of how people feel about them, having an education campaign so people can understand them will be important.”

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at antonia@thepublicsradio.org