Category Archives: City Issues

This Spring, I have written letters to constituents concerning recent devleopments in the City and the City Council.My May 10 letter (link here: 5-10_Budget_and_Dog_Ordinance.pdf) provides an overview of the Mayor’s budget and a discussion of the controversy involving access of dogs to City parks.

September 16 Ward Letter

On Tuesday night, I will join members of the Jewish community in observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  As part of my observance, I would like to ask you to forgive me for the wrongs I have committed against you during the past year.  I wish everyone else observing the holiday an easy fast and a fulfilling experience.  Returning to the municipal level, this letter will discuss the results of Wednesday’s primary on the City Council for the coming term.

Download a pdf copy.

The mayoral side of the City’s primaries points to continuity, as Mayor Elorza won the Democratic Party nomination for re-election.  Any contested election brings uncertainty, but he is favored to return to office in November.

The City Council has 15 seats, and the entire City Council for the past two terms has been filled with Democratic Party members.  As a result, the winners of last week’s primary (along with those other Democrats who did not have a primary opponent) are the presumptive members of next term’s City Council.  From this perspective, next year’s presumptive City Council will have four new members, from Wards 2, 8, 12 and 13.

In Ward 2, we nominated Helen Anthony to represent us next term.  Attending candidate forums and speaking with our neighbors during the campaign, I was impressed (though not surprised) by our high level of discussion, our knowledge of critical issues and the attention we paid to this campaign.  I am optimistic that presumptive Councilwoman-elect Anthony will do an excellent job.  I will be pleased to provide her with all the help I can over the coming months to ensure a smooth transition.

In Ward 8 (Reservoir Triangle neighborhood), my colleague Wilbur Jennings was defeated in his campaign for a third term.  In my opinion, Councilman Jennings was one of the unsung heroes of the City Council over the past two terms.  During the 2011-14 term, the City Council addressed several of the City’s critical problems (“fiscal hurricane,” pension reform, economic development, etc.) that were enacted by a divided (and sometimes closely divided) City Council with his support, while in the current term, Councilman Jennings has stood up against many of the abuses of the leadership team elected to begin the term.  As you may remember, this term began with the election of a Council President (Councilman Aponte) and Majority Leader (Councilman Jackson) who had lengthy records of campaign finance violations, and who were indicted during the term for felony crimes, leading each to resign his leadership position in disgrace.  Throughout these events, the members of the Aponte/Jackson faction continuously courted Councilman Jennings to join their side, one time coming to his house with bottle of wine as an inducement.  Councilman Jennings stood tall, supporting policies that benefitted his neighborhood and the City as a whole, rather than supporting the tactics other Council members pursued to extract an advantage for their particular ward (or wards) at the expense of the rest of the City.  Thanks to his vision and principles, the City is much better off.

More generally, now that we know who the likely City Council members are, my colleagues will be caucusing among themselves to form a leadership team of eight or more Council members who will vote as a block to fill the key leadership positions (President, Majority Leader and committee chairs).  I believe that many of the failures of this City Council term (such as the “zombie bond,” which was approved by 85% of the City’s voters, only to be blocked by the City Council “leadership” in a failed attempt to create multimillion dollar accounts for individual members to control) can be traced directly to the City Council’s poor judgment in electing the Aponte/Jackson team.  More generally, this leadership team clashed frequently with the Mayor, and will be remembered more for preventing the City’s progress than for allowing it, never mind advancing it.  We have seen some progress since Councilman Salvatore won election as City Council President late last year, but those results have been limited by the committee structure and other remnants of the Aponte/Jackson team.

It is my hope that we will not see a repeat of last term’s faction-driven group that put their individual careers and their individual wards’ interests above the well-being of the City as a whole.  While my status as a “lame duck” limits my effectiveness, I will contribute wherever I can to promoting a better City Council leadership team for the next term.

Sincerely,

sam signature

September 8 Ward Letter

September brings a new school year and the chance for a fresh start.  Sadly, this past Wednesday saw the untimely death of William Parsons, a beloved Central High School student who was the innocent victim of a shooting outside his school.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to William’s family and the school communities living through this tragedy.  While the other news from the City pales in comparison, this week’s letter will discuss the City Council’s votes last Thursday on the Hope Point Tower and ethics reform legislation.

Download a pdf copy.

After the extensive public hearing and the Ordinance Committee vote to recommend denial of the Hope Point Tower zoning change, I assumed that there was a sufficient record on which the City Council could vote on the proposal.   I was mistaken.  The City Council took a voice vote to return the measure to committee, apparently because leadership believed this was the only option on which there was a consensus.  I voted against the motion and asked that my vote be recorded, as I do not see the point in further review of a project that has been vetted this extensively.  Under the City procedures, the Ordinance Committee must schedule another public hearing if it wishes to consider amendments to the current proposal.

Even more disappointing was the City Council’s roll call vote to disapprove legislation that would disqualify members with felony indictments from serving in top City Council leadership positions, and suspending them from remaining in those positions if they are indicted during their term of office.  I first introduced this ordinance in 2016 after Kevin Jackson resigned from his position as Majority Leader after his embezzlement indictment, and pressed again for its passage after Luis Aponte resigned in disgrace from his position as City Council President following his felony arraignment in May, 2017.  At first, Mr. Aponte claimed he could not resign because his lawyer advised him it would be an admission of guilt.  This was legally untrue and probably factually untrue as well, but it demonstrated how Mr. Aponte viewed his elected position as personal property rather than as a public trust.  After a chaotic week, he finally resigned, claiming he was acting selflessly for the good of the City.  It therefore was surprising when, in last Thursday’s debate, Mr. Aponte returned to his pre-resignation talking points, arguing that officer positions were the personal property of the office holder, and should not be taken away merely because of the triviality of a felony indictment.  I was even more disappointed by the majority of City Council members, most of whom made the original mistake in 2015 of electing these two people to the top leadership position despite five-figure  unpaid fines, ethics violations and false campaign finance statements.  These Council members compounded their poor judgment on Thursday by failing to approve an ordinance that could prevent this type of harm from reoccurring.  In a television show earlier this term, two of the Council members who voted against ethics reform on Thursday (John Igliozzi and Jo-Ann Ryan) stated their interest in someday becoming Mayor of Providence.  I ask you to remember their votes against ethics reform should either of them (or any of their colleagues) ever ask for our vote for any public office in the future.

Please find the time to vote on Wednesday, September 12.  In addition to nominating party candidates for the November election, the Democratic primary will select an unopposed candidate to succeed me on the City Council, and the presumptive next State Representative in District 4 to succeed Aaron Regunberg.  Polling stations will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.  To find out the location of your polling station, click here.

Sincerely,

sam signature

September 1 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying this beautiful Labor Day weekend.  This week’s letter discusses some issues related to the new school year, and some information I have assembled to answer questions you have asked me about the ongoing campaign to elect a new City Council representative for our ward.

Download a pdf copy.

The new school year will open with new challenges.  Over the summer, we learned that the United States Department of Justice has investigated the Providence School Department concerning the adequacy of its programs for students learning the English language.  The investigation will lead to a consent decree with specific milestones to spur action to solve a problem that has been known for several years.  The School Department has allocated approximately $1 million in the current budget to address this issue, but further commitments will be necessary.  The School Department Oversight Committee will meet on September 17 to discuss this and other issues.

A second issue facing the schools is a decision by the Providence Teachers Union to “work to rule” in light of a lack of progress in contract negotiations.  Under this decision, teachers refuse to perform any work beyond that specifically spelled out in the contract, which means that the union is urging teachers not to perform other non-contractual work on which students depend, such as writing college recommendations.  I believe that the teachers have a right to a contract, but I question whether their decision is fair to students.

Another possible issue is the risk of a strike by bus drivers (who are hired by the School Department’s private vendor).  The School Department has stated that it is working on contingency plans to address this possibility, and to communicate with parents about this potential disruption.

The campaign for the Ward 2 City Council seat I will be vacating at the end of this year has become very contentious, and many of you have asked me questions about the charges and the counter charges.  Some of these issues need to be addressed by the candidates themselves, but I would like to share with you my own analysis and research into the facts to try to clarify the record for your decision as voters.

People have asked me concerning a rumor they have heard that one candidate (Ryan Holt) works at the law firm that represents Jason Fane, the promoter of the Hope Tower Project on the I-195 land.  This rumor is not correct.  Mr. Fane’s attorney is Jeffrey Padwa, who for a while was associated with the Darrow Everett law firm where Ryan works.  Several months ago, Mr. Padwa opened his own independent law practice, and neither he nor Mr. Fane has any ties to the Darrow Everett law firm.

People also have asked me about two campaign flyers that Ryan Holt has mailed out in which he makes charges concerning Helen Anthony’s service on the Columbia City Council.  Based on that review and research, I compiled an Analysis of the contentions in the flyers.  I can summarize my findings as follows:

A controversy has arisen concerning two pieces of mailed literature in which one candidate for the City Council (Ryan Holt) has made accusations concerning the conduct of another candidate (Helen Anthony) while she served on the Columbia, Missouri City Council with regard to a road improvement project.  The first flyer identifies two sources for its factual information, namely an article from the Columbia Heart Beat blog, and a report from the Columbia Historic District Commission.  The second flyer cites the same two sources.  I have reviewed the two flyers and the two listed sources.  I also found two pieces of additional information from my own research, namely an article from Columbia Missouri public radio concerning Helen Anthony’s plans to resign her Columbia City Council seat, and an article from the Columbia Missourian concerning the eventual construction of the project.

The front of the first flyer states that Ms. Anthony was “implicated” in the Historic District Commission report of “violating City ordinances meant to prevent corruption.”  The report identifies two violations of City ordinances, namely failing to hold a stakeholder meeting (called an “interested parties” meeting) prior to voting on public improvement plans, and scheduling the public hearing before the City Council authorized the hearing to take place.  In both cases, the report identifies Mr. Glascock, the City Director of Public Works, as the official whose decisions violated these ordinances.  (See report, pages 5-16).  The report includes statements by Ms. Anthony to both stakeholders and the press that the “interested parties” meeting should take place, in compliance with the ordinance.  See Report, p. 7.  For that reason, I believe the use of the word “implicated” (which typically refers to involvement in commission of a crime) is misleading.

On the back of the flyer, there are two quotations from the Columbia Heart Beat article, the first being that Ms. Anthony was “deeply involved,” immediately followed by one describing “the alleged legal and ethical lapses.”  A review of the article shows that, consistent with the report, the “ethical lapses [which] were part of an effort by the city’s executive branch” were committed by Mr. Glascock, who was a member of the City government’s executive branch, not Ms. Anthony.  Instead, the article refers later to Ms. Anthony’s being “deeply involved in the planning” of the road project, not in Mr. Glascock’s decision to avoid the “interested parties” meeting she identified as being required.  In other words, I believe the quotations were presented out of order and out of context to imply a misleading conclusion.  (The Columbia Heart Beat article, but not the report, also refers to Section 12 of the Columbia City Charter, which prevents City Council members from dealing directly with City officials except for purposes of “inquiry.”  Ms. Anthony appears to have engaged in this permitted form of communication.)

The back of the flyer also states the following: “Soon after the controversy began, Helen Anthony resigned and moved to Providence.”  (emphasis in original)  This statement implies that the controversy led to Ms. Anthony’s decision to resign and leave.  I believe it is misleading because the key event that led to the controversy was Mr. Glascock’s October 21, 2012 decision to proceed with a hearing without a prior stakeholder meeting and/or City Council approval (see report, p. 9), which came after Ms. Anthony’s October 16, 2012 announcement (as reported in the article from Columbia Missouri public radio)  that, effective November 30, she was leaving the Columbia City Council to move to Providence with her husband.

The second flyer, which features a picture of a backhoe tearing down a building, asserts that Ms. Anthony was responsible for “demolished historic properties” (as stated on its front side), and “the destruction of several historic homes” (as stated on its back side).  In fact, according to the article from the Columbia Missourian, the project was completed several years later without the demolition of any buildings.  In other words, I believe the central charge of the second flyer is false.

I leave it to the candidates to debate the details of these issues beyond the specific statements contained in the flyers we received.

I hope you find this information useful as you develop your own thoughts about the candidates for the City Council.

Sincerely,

sam signature

Analysis of campaign flyers

A controversy has arisen concerning two pieces of mailed literature in which one candidate for the City Council (Ryan Holt) has made accusations concerning the conduct of another candidate (Helen Anthony) while she served on the City Council in Columbia, Missouri concerning a road improvement project.  The first flyer identifies two sources for its factual information, namely an article from the Columbia Heart Beat blog, and a report from the Columbia Historic District Commission.  The second flyer cites the same two sources.  I have reviewed the two flyers and the two listed sources.  I also found two pieces of additional information from my own research, namely an article from Columbia Missouri public radio concerning Helen Anthony’s plans to resign her Columbia City Council seat, and an article from the Columbia Missourian concerning the eventual construction of the project.

The front side of the first flyer states that Ms. Anthony was “implicated” in the Historic District Commission report of “violating City ordinances meant to prevent corruption.”  The report identifies two violations of City ordinances, namely failing to hold a stakeholder meeting (called an “interested parties” meeting) prior to voting on public improvement plans, and scheduling the public hearing before the City Council authorized the hearing to take place.  In both cases, the report identifies Mr. Glascock, the City Director of Public Works, as the official whose decisions violated these ordinances.  (See report, pages 5-16).  The report includes statements by Ms. Anthony to both stakeholders and the press that the “interested parties” meeting should take place.  See Report, p. 7.  For that reason, I believe the use of the word “implicated” is misleading.

The back of the flyer presents two quotations from the Columbia Heart Beat article, the first being that Ms. Anthony was “deeply involved,” immediately followed by one describing “the alleged legal and ethical lapses.”  A review of the article shows that, consistent with the report, it attributes the “ethical lapses [which] were part of an effort by the city’s executive branch” to Mr. Glascock, who was a member of the City government’s executive branch, not Ms. Anthony, who was part of the City’s legislative branch.  Instead, the article refers later to Ms. Anthony’s being “deeply involved in the planning” of the road project, not in Mr. Glascock’s decision to avoid the “interested parties” meeting she identified as being required.

The back of the flyer also states the following: “Soon after the controversy began, Helen Anthony resigned and moved to Providence.”  (emphasis in original)  This statement implies that the controversy led to her decision to resign and leave.  It is misleading because the key event that led to the controversy was Mr. Glascock’s October 21, 2012 decision to proceed with a hearing without a prior stakeholder meeting and/or City Council approval (see report, p. 9), which came after Ms. Anthony’s October 16, 2012 announcement that, effective November 30, she was leaving the Columbia City Council to move to Providence with her husband.

The second flyer, which features a picture of a backhoe tearing down a building, asserts that she was responsible for “demolished historic properties” on the front, and “the destruction of several historic homes” on the back.  In fact, according to the article from the Columbia Missourian, the project was completed several years later without the demolition of any buildings.

Mark Tracy For State Representative

While the City Council remains in its August recess, I write to explain why I am supporting Mark Tracy to serve as State Representative for District 4, where I live.

Download a pdf copy.

On Wednesday, September 12, Democratic voters in Rhode Island House District 4 will nominate a successor to State Representative Aaron Regunberg. We will choose between two talented and public-minded candidates who share similar policy positions on the issues of social justice that Aaron championed. After learning about the candidates for the past two months, I have decided to vote for Mark Tracy, because he has the best chance to build a strong partnership between our State and our City’s government and public schools.

Providence is blessed with many treasures that define and enrich our quality of life, but we face daunting challenges. While some families (including mine) have been able to obtain a quality public education for their children, the overall number of children in our neighborhood is disproportionately low, and the number of those children who attend private or parochial school is disproportionately high. Every year, many families with school age children leave our neighborhood for the suburbs. Other families and businesses decide not to locate in Providence because of their concerns about our public schools. A major challenge for our schools is an inadequate level of State aid, due to an inequitable funding formula that is cloaked in mathematical obscurity. The General Assembly is scheduled to revisit the formula soon, and Mark Tracy has identified this as a priority. Mark has the financial and analytic skill to understand the formula’s complexities. We need a more equitable formula that will support a quality public education for everyone across the City of Providence, while also providing an attractive option for our middle class families. Providence needs a strong middle class to prosper, and we need strong public schools to support a strong middle class. I believe Mark Tracy is best qualified to take on this issue.

The City’s paramount financial challenge is the $1 billion unfunded pension liability, which over the next 5-10 years will pose an existential threat to the City government’s ability to carry out its essential functions. Without help from the State, the City’s escalating pension costs will force cutbacks in city services, public safety and our public schools, drastically reducing our quality of life, and ultimately leading to bankruptcy. If elected, Mark Tracy will come into office with a deep knowledge of this issue, and with the goal of using that knowledge to build a stronger partnership between the State and our City.

Mark Tracy is an ideas candidate. I invite you to visit his website www.marktracy.com to review his proposals for partnerships that can expand our State services through the investment of private funds without taxpayer risk, and to support business development without sacrificing our tax base. Our State can benefit from new ideas to serve us effectively and efficiently.

The East Side’s delegation already is well-represented with progressive leaders, such as Edie Ajello, Gayle Goldin and Chris Blazejewski. If elected, Mark Tracy will provide a reliable vote to advance a progressive agenda. What makes Mark stand out to me is his potential to become a leader in the General Assembly on the economic and financial issues that are critical to the successful future of our City and our public schools. That is why I plan to vote for Mark Tracy for State Representative in the Democratic primary on September 12 and encourage you to join me.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

sam signature

July 29 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying your summer.  In my final letter before the August recess, I will discuss a school bond referendum and a renewed effort to bring “good government” reform for the City Council.

Download a pdf copy.

At its final meeting before the recess, the City Council will vote on whether to place a question on the November ballot seeking approval to issue $160 million in City bonds to fund school construction.  While it may appear on the surface to be an imposing commitment, the background facts concerning State aid for school construction make the proposal more attractive and affordable than it first may seem.

On paper, the State’s school construction aid program supports local projects based upon their ability to pay, and in the case of Providence, the formula calls for State aid to equal 83% of the project cost.  There are, however, several hurdles the State has imposed, partly to avoid excessive and/or improvident spending, but also to minimize the impact on the State budget.

The path to construction of a new, or substantially renovated school goes through six stages.  The City and the School Department develop a list of projects.  The City’s school architect submits plans and cost estimates to the State Department of Education to qualify the project for funding.  The City makes a commitment to pay the full cost of the project and asks the General Assembly to authorize reimbursement of the State’s “share.”  The General Assembly approves the project.  The City builds and pays for the project.  The State reimburses its share of the project once final construction is completed.

If you think this path is convoluted, I agree completely.  It would make more sense if the State did not require a second layer of approval from the General Assembly after the Department of Education has vetted and approved the project.  Also, it would make more sense for the State to pay its share of construction costs as they are incurred, rather than requiring the City to pay the entire cost “up front” and then seek reimbursement.  In my opinion, neither of these hurdles improves the quality or cost-effectiveness of a school project; instead, it strains the City’s bond rating and ultimately degrades the quality of the school facilities for our children.

With that said, there is the potential for improvement if we, as voters, approve the $250 million State bond for new school construction.  Some of this money will be available earlier in the construction/payment cycle, and the reimbursement rate will increase for certain projects that meet the State’s goals (newer buildings that consolidate smaller ones).

Given these constraints, it is advantageous for the City to place our children at the front of the line with the State by accelerating the first few stages of the process.  The $160 million bond vote is an example of this.  Although we voters are being asked to approve the entire commitment at once, the City plans, if voters approve, to issue bonds over a period of years, matching new issues with existing bonds as they are retired.  This probably will result in the issuance of school bonds in three installments of $50-$60 million each at 2-year intervals.  This would match the schedule of school bonds coming off the books during those years, thereby keeping the City’s level of borrowing and debt service for school projects essentially stable over that time.  (The City views other capital projects, such as streets, sidewalks and public buildings as a separate category, and the school bond issue will not affect ongoing municipal capital projects and plans.)

In short, while $160 million is a large number, it will be borrowed over a period of four or five years, and the bulk of the expense will be reimbursed by the State.  These reasons explain why I will be voting in favor of the bond at Monday night’s City Council meeting, and why I will encourage you to vote “Yes” if (as expected) the bond issue appears on the November ballot.

Last week, it was reported that former City Council President Aponte, while he was in office, directed the expenditure of $70,000 of City funds to GoLocal Prov without complying with the City’s procurement and competitive bidding rules, a transaction the Mayor stated “reeks of cronyism.”  This was the latest in a series of scandals this term involving former President Aponte and/or former Majority Leader Kevin Jackson, who after his felony indictment made history as the first Providence elected official to be recalled from office (by a margin of 91% to 9%).  These scandals produced an abundance of “teachable moments” demonstrating how the misdeeds of the City Council’s top leadership can drag down not only the entire body, but also the City as it appeals to businesses to locate here and to the State to support us.  These scandals demonstrate that the City Council’s leadership will not voluntarily step aside for the good of the City, and that their political allies are reluctant to take measures that will hurt their friends and/or damage their own political standing.  As a result, the City Council ultimately dealt with these issues only after a public outcry, sustaining damage from its tardy and (at least initially) inadequate response.

With that in mind, I have introduced a new version of an ordinance I first introduced after Councilman Jackson’s indictment and brought up again after Councilman Aponte’s indictment, stubborn resistance, and ultimate capitulation to overwhelming opprobrium.  On both occasions, the proposed ordinance was rejected on the theory that the problem would not happen again anytime soon, and that the City Council could address the problem in “real time” in the unlikely event of a reoccurrence.   I remain convinced it is easier to establish a rule in advance that City Council members indicted of felony crimes should yield their leadership and committee positions at least on a temporary basis until their record is cleared, and that a clear rule will help restore public confidence.  While an individual is entitled to the presumption of innocence in a court of law when indicted, these leadership positions are privileges the City Council confers on members for the good of the body, and the cloud that sits over indicted Council members harms the entire Council in the court of public opinion as long as the indicted members stay in top leadership positions.  For the good of the body, it would be better to place other capable Council members in those positions unless and until the cloud of indictment is lifted.  The current proposal would not take effect until January 1, 2019, so I am hoping it will make it easier for the Council to embrace a long-term solution to this serious problem.  The measure is scheduled to be heard in the Claims Committee on Wednesday night at 5:00 p.m.

Sincerely,

sam signature

July 22 Ward Letter

As the City Council heads towards its August recess, this week’s letter discusses a different approach to student housing regulation and the proposed Hope Point Tower.

Download a pdf copy.

As described in my July 1 letter, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee voted to continue an ordinance that would have limited to 3 the number of students who can live in each unit of a 2-family home located in an R-1 zone.  At tomorrow’s City Council meeting, my colleague Councilman Yurdin will introduce an ordinance of 4 undergraduate students to any housing unit in the City, regardless of zone.  The measure would not regulate graduate students, and would permit up to four undergraduate students in each unit of a multifamily house.  The proposed ordinance is similar to others in Boston and Somerville, Massachusetts.  It ultimately will be referred to the City Plan Commission, which last month decided to review the student housing issue in a broader context.

Last Wednesday night, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee held a public hearing on the petition to change the zoning on the I-195 land to permit the construction of the Hope Point Tower, a proposed 46-story luxury condominium complex.  Over a hundred people attended the meeting, and dozens of witnesses testified both for and against the proposal.  I found the testimony to be largely substantive and informative.

The first witness was Robert Azar, Deputy Director of the Planning Department.  He noted that the City’s zoning map is based upon the Comprehensive Plan, a document that was most recently approved three years ago after several years of public engagement.  The Comprehensive Plan calls for relatively low heights near the river, which gradually increase in the direction of downtown in order to maximize the advantages of river views.  For this reason and others, the City Plan Commission found that the proposed zoning change was not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, and therefore should not be approved unless and until the Comprehensive Plan is modified.

A number of representatives of the building trades spoke in favor of the proposal, noting how the construction of the project would provide their members with 2-3 years of employment, which could materially advance their careers and their family’s opportunity to gain the benefits of the American Dream.  Other proponents noted the opportunity to make a bold architectural statement to help place the City of Providence on the national or international map.  Another proponent noted that the project could generate $4 million in annual tax revenue to the City, which sounded low given that others stated it would generate $250-$300 million in investment.  (At the commercial tax rate of $36.50, a $250 million project should generate more than $9 million in tax revenue.)  Some of the disparity might be explained by the developer’s stated plan to obtain a 20-year tax stabilization agreement, which would mean taxing at the “vacant land” value for 3 years, and adding in the marginal value of the building in 6% increments over the following 17 years.

There was testimony from residents who wished to protect a planned park whose size and access would be reduced by the proposal, as well as a letter from another developer who stated his reliance on the comprehensive plan prior to investing $200 million in the South Street Landing project nearby.  A well-known real estate appraiser (Peter Scotti) questioned the project’s viability in terms of matching the acquisition and construction costs with the projected market value of the condominiums that would become available.  Neither the project’s developer nor any representative testified at the hearing.

The Ordinance Committee took a series of different votes, ultimately agreeing to forward the proposal to the City Council with the Committee’s recommendation against approval.  The proposal will now go to the City Council for a vote at a future meeting.

Given the Ordinance Committee’s vote, it is now my responsibility as a City Council member to develop a position on the project.  In addition to reviewing the record before the Ordinance Committee, I have the benefit of dozens of messages and emails from you, my constituents and other City residents.  Thank you all for sharing your thoughtful comments.

As part of my research, I asked the Law Department whether the City Council could impose on the zoning change a requirement that the developer pay full taxes from the beginning, rather than obtaining a tax stabilization agreement.  (Because the parcel in question is on the I-195 land, the developer is otherwise automatically eligible for this incentive.)  I learned the City Council does not have this authority.  I noted that the developer could reduce tax revenues even further by converting units in the building to condominiums (which would pay the lower residential rate), while the common areas would retain the benefits of the tax stabilization agreement, and the developer could adjust the timing of the condominium conversion to tax fullest advantage of the low-tax early years of a tax stabilization.  I concluded the project’s benefit to the City’s finances would be greatly reduced for at least the first decade and possibly after that, depending upon market demand for the condominiums (which was questioned by Mr. Scotti.)   In short, this is not a project where the developer is offering to pay full taxes (such as for example was the case for 257 Thayer Street), but instead is looking for substantial tax benefits in addition to extraordinary relief from the zoning code and the comprehensive plan.

Putting all these considerations together, I have decided to vote against approval of the Hope Point Tower.  As some speakers noted, there are other downtown locations (such as across from the old Industrial National Bank Building, where a zoning change approving a 500-foot tall building several years ago for a project that did not go forward for other reasons) where this project would have a better chance of approval, but the location this developer chose is not compatible with the City’s overall development goals.

Sincerely,

sam signature

July 15 Ward Letter

The Blackstone Parks Conservancy’s program of summer music concerts returned to Blackstone Boulevard this Wednesday, to the delight of both audience and passers-by.  I invite you to catch as many of the remaining three that are scheduled.  This week’s letter discusses the School Department supplemental budget and the Ward 2 City Council campaign.

Download a pdf copy.

On Thursday night, the School Department Oversight Committee approved a supplemental budget to expend of $2.7 million in additional funds appropriated by the State, based on a posted enrollment increase.  The majority of  additional funds will be set aside for anticipated contractual raises and increasing student security.  Other funds will marginally enhance programs which could not be funded completely in the original budget, including building security, junior varsity sports and after school programs at Central and Mount Pleasant High Schools.

The funding also will permit Classical High School to address a longstanding need for an additional guidance counselor, following an extensive discussion of that school’s role within the City’s system.  In prior years, the School Department was unable to fund this position because of the competing demands of children in other schools struggling to achieve proficiency, while the norm for Classical’s students is to strive for admissions to selective colleges and win competitive scholarships.  The School Department justified the allocation to Classical this year based on four principal arguments.  First, Classical’s students have a special need for guidance counselors because of their high rate of college enrollment in addition to the emotional needs that all high school students face.  Second, Classical’s share of resources ($9,000 per pupil versus $14,000 per pupil at other Providence high schools) is particularly thin.  Third, the academic needs of Classical’s students may fly “under the radar” because of the current proficiency tests, which measure the student’s current level of achievement rather than their growth of learning over the previous year.  On the one hand, this “static” form of measurement fails to note the great accomplishments of many Providence students, who start the school year far below the standard, but advance two grade levels or more in a given year.  They may still be still deemed “unsuccessful” because they did not make it all the way up to proficiency.  On the other hand, “static” measurements can overstates the “success” of students who begin the year ahead of grade level, but do not advance sufficiently while in school.  Finally, Classical is a valuable part of our school system because of its unmatched socioeconomic and demographic diversity, a Title I school “majority minority” school that also is attractive to our City’s middle class.  Providence needs to retain its middle class to have a bright future, and Classical High School is a critical part of that future.

In my June 3 letter, I noted that three of our neighbors have stepped forward to campaign to represent you on the City Council in the term that begins next January.  I would like you to know that, while I did not ask any of them to run for the seat, all three asked to meet with me before announcing their plans.  I found the meetings to be enlightening and rewarding.  I told each one I was delighted they were interested in serving our City, and that I believe each of them is capable of doing fine work on the Providence City Council.  I encourage you to take the time this summer to learn about the candidates, ask them questions, share your concerns and priorities, and then join me in voting in the Democratic primary on Wednesday, September 12.

Sincerely,

sam signature

July 8 Ward Letter

I hope your Independence Day provided a meaningful reminder of our country’s distinctive heritage of  ideals, rather than shared nationality.  This week’s letter discusses a recent controversy over political party endorsements, and a possible solution some of our civic-minded neighbors have developed.

Download a pdf copy.

Last week, a controversy arose after the Rhode Island Democratic Party endorsed challengers to two incumbent members of the Rhode Island General Assembly, generating a national debate.  The national media followed the critics in framing the issue as an ideological struggle between the party’s old guard and its progressive wing.  By the end of the week, the State Democratic Party withdrew these endorsements in response to an avalanche of criticism.

While the endorsements (one of which was for a former Trump Republican) were a mistake that needed to be corrected, I believe that the national coverage was oversimplified, as several of the progressive critics themselves participate in, and benefit from, an endorsement process that has its own significant flaws.

In the great majority of cases, party endorsements for General Assembly and/or City City Council contests are made by a committee of citizens subject to election by voters at party primaries.  With that said, we rarely see these positions on the ballot because in most cases the number of available committee seats equals or exceeds the number of candidates seeking them.  The sole responsibility of these committees is to approve an endorsement in June of each election year.  When a committee fails to form, the responsibility for endorsements reverts to the State or City party

It is common for candidates and office holders to recruit members for these district committee seats so  they can control their own endorsement in the next election. You can review the list of district and ward committee candidates on the Secretary of State’s website.  Such a review will reveal a large number of office holders who serve on their own endorsement committee, and/or who recruit their spouse and/or other family members to make the decision whether to endorse the office holder in the next election.  This type of committee-stacking is a common practice across both parties and across both wings of the Democratic Party.  If the two incumbents from last week’s controversy had, during the last election, recruited a slate of favorable endorsement committee members who had won at the last election (or not faced opposition) those incumbents would have ensured themselves of gaining “their” committee’s endorsement.  As a result, I believe the recent endorsement debate is more of a power struggle between incumbent office holders and the party over who controls the endorsement process, rather than any type of debate over political principle or “good government.”

This fuller understanding of the problem sheds light on possible solutions.  One possible solution is to acknowledge that these endorsements are inherently political, and for voters to take them with several grains of salt.  Another is to abolish the endorsement process entirely as an archaic vestige of a bygone political era.  While each of these alternatives has its own advantages and disadvantages, we have a third alternative in Ward 2 that I believe works very well for us, and could be a model for the rest of the State.

You will not see the eight candidates for the Ward 2 Democratic Party endorsement committee on the ballot, because they automatically will qualify for the eleven vacant seats with three to spare.  These eight civic-minded citizens are Joshua Eisen, Wally Gernt, Susan Gunter, Barbara Harris, Terrance Martiesian, Bill Mott, Howard Schulman (Committee Chair) and Susan Tremblay.  Many of them date back to 2010, when I sought their endorsement, but unlike other committees, they have maintained an identity completely separate and apart from this office holder.  They fill their own vacancies, and I have never recruited any candidates to serve with them (or against them).  To their credit, they hold quarterly meetings to discuss City issues with me, providing me with valuable feedback to help me perform my work on the City Council more effectively and responsively.  In short, they are ideal public servants, working on a purely voluntary basis above and beyond the single official role they have been assigned.  (I also had no role in their endorsement decision for the current election cycle.)  If any Ward 2 residents (who are members of the Democratic Party) wish to apply for the three anticipated vacancies, please send Howard an email and you can gain a chance to learn and shape City government.  The Secretary of State’s website also provides information about members of the Ward 2 Republican endorsement committee if you wish to join that organization.

Rather than view the recent endorsement controversy as part of the ongoing struggle between progressives and conservatives, let’s instead learn from the legacy of the Progressive era of the early 20th century, which brought such “good government” reforms as political primaries, voter initiative and referenda.  Our Ward 2 Democratic Committee offers a positive alternative to either incumbent-based or central Party-based control over endorsements, and I encourage you to consider joining them in their good work.

Sincerely,

sam signature

July 1 Ward Letter

I hope you are making fun plans for the Fourth of July.  This week’s letter discusses a discussion concerning short-term rentals, regulation of student housing and final passage of the City budget.

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Last Monday night, Councilwoman LaFortune and I hosted a discussion concerning the regulation of Airbnb and the growth of short-term rentals of homes.  Our review began when some residents of Belair Avenue began calling the police regularly as their quality of life and public safety were damaged by the activities of strangers occupying a neighbor’s house that became a de facto hotel.  At Monday night’s meeting, other residents also shared Airbnb horror stories.  Other participants described their experience as conscientious Airbnb operators who meet nice people, supplement their income and provide new travel and temporary residence options to visitors.  Both sides of Monday’s discussion were firmly committed to their position, with impacted neighbors asking the City to force disruptive Airbnb operators to leave, and Airbnb operators urging neighbors to be more vigilant and/or get used to living in a city.  I concluded that the City’s role should be to use regulation to encourage the advantages of short-term rentals while minimizing or eliminating the negative impacts.  The Planning Department is looking at this issue also, and Boston’s recently enacted regulatory program (including a licensing program) may provide a good place to start.

On June 27, the City Council conducted a public hearing on the student housing ordinance, which was well-attended by concerned College Hill residents.  As noted last week, the City Plan Commission voted to support the ordinance for passage at this time, while also committing to study the broader issues it raises, as the incremental change the ordinance proposes will not address the major underlying issues.  Unfortunately, the Ordinance Committee appeared to misunderstand the report from the City Plan Commission, and decided to place the ordinance on hold until after the City Plan Commission completed its supplemental study.  In light of this apparent misunderstanding, the Planning Department sent a Letter to the Ordinance Committee clarifying the issue and asking them to reconsider their vote.

On Friday night, the City Council passed the City budget for a second time after reaching an understanding with the administration regarding the disposition of unspent balances in neighborhood infrastructure fund accounts.  The municipal budget is now set, but there will be changes to the School Department budget.  On Wednesday night, the School Board approved a supplemental budget that incorporates additional State aid that was released after the original budget was submitted.  The School Department Oversight Committee will review that budget promptly and forward it to the City Council for approval prior to the August recess to ensure that the funds will be available to support our children when they return to school in September.  While this year’s budget achieves the basic election year goals of maintaining current programs without a tax increase, I remain concerned about the ever-growing pension obligation, and I will continue to use my remaining time in office to generate discussion and hopefully action on this critical issue.

Sincerely,

sam signature