WARWICK, RI — Vinny Gebhart, Warwick Democratic City Committee endorsed candidate for Ward 9 on the Warwick City Council, Boston tech executive, brings 15 years of private sector and non-profit experience to the race.
Warwick Post.com emailed the same questions to each Ward 9 candidate last week and gave them until Monday, Oct. 26, to respond. Each was asked to acknowledge receipt of the emailed questions, and their intent to answer them.
Gebhart replied on Oct. 20 to acknowledge receipt of the questionnaire and returned his answers on Oct. 26. Following are his answers, printed verbatim:
1) During the May 27 budget hearing, Mayor Solomon failed to answer or to pledge to answer several questions posed by citizens and Council members, as reported in the Warwick Post article: Warwick Budget Hearing Questions Unanswered.
What would be your approach to handling this behavior if it were your questions ignored? What if a citizen or fellow council member’s budget question went unanswered?
GEBHART: All elected officials serve the community at large and have a responsibility to provide timely, transparent, and accurate responses to public inquiries – including those by the City Council. As the next City Councilor from Ward 9, I would continue to pursue questions that myself, my colleagues, and my constituents have asked in a professional and respectful manner until appropriate responses are provided.
2) Warwick City Council subcommittee meetings often run over time, delaying the start of the full Council meeting. What is your assessment of this process? Should it be changed, and if so, how?
GEBHART: It is incumbent upon each committee member to review the agenda items in advance of the meeting. Questions of a more detailed nature can be posed to department heads or other personnel in advance of the meeting, rather than for the first time during the live meeting. This advanced preparation gives all involved the opportunity to prepare thoughtful and accurate responses rather than off-the-cuff. That said, if questions arise during a meeting that were not contemplated prior and it is in the interest of the Council to obtain answers, committee members should pursue those responses.
In the past, Finance committee meetings were held on a different night of the week in order to support the detailed review and dialogue necessary. This could be considered.
For certain items that could take multiple hours and where extensive public comment is expected, the Council should consider scheduling special meetings so that the public won’t have to wait around and so the balance of the agenda can proceed without delay.
3) What other processes of the City Council would you argue to change?
GEBHART: I would like to see the virtual access to council meetings continue even post-COVID as it opens up the opportunity for the public to participate. I would also like to make it a priority to build and enhance trust between Council members such that the tone in meetings is collegial and respectful. We accomplish more when we work together on behalf of the public.
4) During a recent City Council meeting, Councilman Ed Ladouceur complained of his inability to get the City to properly repair Lipitt Park following a recent car crash that damaged it. The meeting ended with his successful resolution forcing the City to make the repairs.
Should citizens expect that their council representative must pursue such measures to secure City services? How would you address this problem?
GEBHART: I think we should understand what the hold up was in regards to repairs at Lippitt Park as it is the responsibility of the City to maintain our parks and public spaces. The City and its public works department have a lot on their plate and often what would be most helpful is an estimated timeline for delivery of repairs and accountability to that commitment.
Leveraging technology and systems to enhance our service delivery would also contribute to increased transparency and a better overall resident experience. Over the past 15 years I have implemented many such systems for increasing engagement and accountability in customer service organizations. A vote for me would bring considerable real-world experience to the Council and would become an asset for building the Warwick of the future.
In the absence of any new initiatives, I think the highest priority should be to maintain open and honest lines of communication between Council members, the Administration, and city service leaders. Working together to solve the issues facing our residents should be the highest priority for each of us and should be the measure of a job well done.
5) Looking back at the 2019 Warwick Schools budget crisis, how would you handle city and school communication differently?
GEBHART: The Mayor’s administration, School Committee, and City Council form the foundation of Warwick’s city government. Their ability to work together makes the difference between efficient and effective governing, and stagnant, inefficient governing. I would use my skills as a consensus builder to ensure all parties are working together well in advance of key votes or policy decisions to ensure the interests of the public are front and center.
6) Millions of dollars have been budgeted the last few years for repairing Warwick’s roads, yet only a fraction of that amount is ever used. For instance, in the article, Schools’ Budget Ask Would Have Added $104 to Median Tax Bill, DPW Director Mat Solitro reported there was $3.1M unspent from the $5M in the previous year’s paving budget. This year, the paving budget was reduced to $500K, but a $10M bond has been secured for paving.
Will you continue to vote to approve budgeting paving funds in amounts the city typically fails to use?
GEBHART: I would respectfully ask that when any line item is funded in the budget that there be a plan to expense against it. There is no purpose in adding funds to a line that cannot be operationalized against, and when doing so it risks creating a “slush fund” and that is something I would not support. I hope that with the new bond for roads and sidewalks we will no longer need to put large amounts of funding into the paving line item as the bond will provide coverage for those repairs. I am looking forward to the engineering report from Beta Group on the condition of the City’s roads and the opportunity to review a comprehensive maintenance plan and associated cost to the taxpayers.
7) How would you make the city’s road projects more accountable and transparent to citizens?
GEBHART: I would take an example from the RIDOT playbook wherein budgets, timelines, and adherence for public projects were made public. This provides transparency and accountability to administration to ensure we are hitting the mark. This information should be available via the City’s website and open to inspection and oversight by the City Council and the public. I would also ensure the engineering report that is being compiled by Beta Group, which assesses the City’s roads and ranks them accordingly, is publically accessible.
8) Was the surprise Dec. 20 special meeting to ratify the Firefighter’s Contract called by the Warwick City Council, catching one Council member on a flight, and ultimately ruled illegal, a wise decision?
GEBHART: The City Council has the ability to hold special meetings in order to cover complex and contentious topics such as ratification of union contracts. Of course, when holding a special meeting every City Council member should receive adequate notice well in advance to ensure time to prepare and to make arrangements to attend.
The public deserves transparency and accountability. The union and its members deserve timely response and thoughtful deliberation. By setting time aside to address these matters, rather than allow them to be pushed from meeting to meeting, the process can be fair for everyone. While we may not always agree on the outcome, establishing a clear and transparent means to get to a decision is the responsibility of the City Council.
9) Considering the Warwick Firefighters’ union’s past history with contractual agreements, was it wise to pass the document with uncorrected errors?
GEBHART: The value of a contract is that it is an enforceable agreement between two parties. City Contracts should provide administration, Council, residents, unions, and their members with clarity and certainty. I do not believe any legal authority would recommend passage of a contract with vague language, errors, or other such issues that would impact the document’s ability to hold up in court should it come to that. As I mentioned earlier, as these contracts and their financial obligations represent an immense portion of the City budget, special consideration and attention should be paid to their formation and ratification to ensure we get them right the first time.
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