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.

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.

Download a pdf copy.

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

June 24 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying the flowering of concerts, parades and festivals that mark the imminent arrival of summer.  This week’s letter discusses the condominium proposal at 150 Lloyd Avenue, the proposed amendment to the student housing ordinance and the regulation of short-term rentals such as Airbnb.

Download a pdf copy.

Tomorrow (Monday) night, Councilwoman LaFortune and I will host a neighborhood meeting to discuss ideas to regulate short-term rentals through such platforms as AirBnB.  It will take place at the Rochambeau Branch Library Conference Room on Monday, June 25 at 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.  At that time, the City Council policy staff will present their research concerning regulations in place in other communities.  We are interested in hearing your comments about their research, as well as your thoughts about the issue more generally.

Last Tuesday night, the City Plan Commission reviewed an Amended Ordinance that would extend the scope of the current student housing ordinance to include 2-family homes in R-1 and R-1A zones.  This represents a modest extension of the student ordinance passed by the City Council two years ago (which applied only to single-family homes), and became necessary after some College Hill residents learned of a lease for a 2-family six-bedroom home to thirteen student tenants, which could significantly change the character of that neighborhood, and could lead to similar changes across the City.  The City Plan Commission correctly noted that this represented a modest step in addressing a much larger issue.  In addition to approving the ordinance and recommending City Council passage, the Planning Commission expressed interest in studying the broader issue of off-campus college student housing, which is creating increasing stress across the City.  The City Council’s Ordinance Committee will hold a public hearing on the ordinance on Wednesday, June 27 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, Third Floor.  That committee may vote on the ordinance after the public hearing, so please consider attending if you would like to share your views on this subject.

At the same June 19 meeting, the City Plan Commission reviewed a proposal to change the zoning around 150 Lloyd Avenue to accommodate the development of up to 10 condominium units on that property.  A large delegation of neighbors testified against the proposal, expressing concerns about the resulting density in that neighborhood and the precedent of introducing such a dramatic zoning change to the City’s zoning program more generally.  The condominium proposal was presented as an alternative to the current stated plan to house a doctor’s office at that location at which prescriptions for suboxone may be issued.  (The current zoning does not permit the opening of a clinic where the drug would be dispensed onsite.)  Residents testified they would prefer a suboxone office to the proposed condominiums, which proposal they viewed as being forced on them by scare tactics.  The City Plan Commission voted against City Council approval; however, the developer retains the option to seek such approval notwithstanding the Commission’s recommendation.   Having listened to the unanimous hearing testimony from neighbors and reports from community groups against the zoning change, I plan to vote against it should it go further before the City Council.  I will inform you if and when the City Council conducts any hearings on this proposal.

Sincerely,

sam signature

June 17 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying the flowering of concerts, parades and festivals that mark the imminent arrival of summer.  This week’s letter discusses the condominium proposal at 150 Lloyd Avenue, the proposed amendment to the student housing ordinance and the regulation of short-term rentals such as Airbnb.

Download a pdf copy.

At the June 4 meeting of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, representatives of a developer presented a proposal to build ten condominium units at 150 Lloyd Avenue to replace the current plans to open a suboxone office at that location.  The proposal would require a zoning change for the property from R-1 to R-4 to permit this increased density of development.  The developer has offered to remove the variance currently attached to the property permitting use as a doctor’s office if the zoning change is approved.  On Tuesday, June 19 at 4:45 p.m. at 444 Westminster Street, the City Plan Commission will review whether this proposal is consistent with the City’s comprehensive plan.  The Commission will review a Report by the Planning Department staff stating its (nonbinding) opinion that the requested zoning change is not consistent with the City’s comprehensive plan.  The Planning Commission will consider the report, hear public comment and take a vote on this issue.  The City Council’s Ordinance Committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning change, and the matter ultimately will be reviewed by the entire City Council.  In the City Council’s process, the Planning Commission’s recommendation carries weight, but is not binding.  I plan to attend Tuesday night’s meeting, and encourage any residents who wish to share their views with the Planning Commission to attend as well.  The agenda is lengthy, so if may be a long night.

At the same June 19 meeting, the City Plan Commission will review an Amended Ordinance that would extend the scope of the current student housing ordinance.  The current ordinance places a 3-student limit on rentals of single-family homes.  The Amended Ordinance would place a three student per unit limit on rentals of two-family homes in R-1 and R-1A zones.  The proposed amendment is based on the discovery of a lease for a 2-family home on College Hill to thirteen student tenants, which could significantly change the character of that neighborhood, and could lead to similar changes across the City.  (An earlier version of the Ordinance would have extended the “three student per unit” restriction to all multifamily houses in all zones, but in response to feedback from you, I worked with the Law Department to scale back the proposal to its current form.)  Residents who have a view on this ordinance are invited to the same meeting, with the same prediction that it could prove to be a long night.

In recent months, Councilwoman LaFortune and I have received requests from constituents to consider regulation of short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb.  We asked the City Council staff to research current regulations in place in other communities.  We now would like to share that research with you and receive your thoughts and ideas about what type of regulation would make sense in Providence.  With that in mind, we have scheduled a neighborhood meeting to take place at the Rochambeau Branch Library Conference Room on Monday, June 25 at 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.  Please mark this on your calendar and consider coming if you wish to learn more about this issue and offer your feedback.

Sincerely,

sam signature

June 3 Ward Letter

We are now in the season that many Rhode Islanders wait for, and I hope you are getting outdoors, perhaps to the Hope Street Block Party yesterday or the PVD Fest downtown next weekend.  This week’s letter discusses a candidate forum for the City Council, a proposed alternative to the suboxone office at 150 Lloyd Avenue and an proposal to extend the City’s student housing ordinance.

Download a pdf copy.

In recent weeks, three East Siders have expressed interest in running for the Ward 2 City Council seat I will be vacating at the end of this year.  They are (in alphabetical order):

  • Helen Anthony, a land use attorney at the Handy Law Firm who previously served on the City Council in Columbia, Missouri;
  • Mark Feinstein, a local businessman who has served on the Providence Economic Development Partnership, which provides capital to Providence businesses unable to obtain conventional financing;
  • Ryan Holt, a governmental affairs and land use attorney at the Darrow Everett law firm, who had prior experience as corporate counsel in the financial services industry.

All three expected candidates (all of whom have qualifications beyond the brief summaries just provided) have accepted an invitation from the College Hill Neighborhood Association to discuss City issues at the Association’s next meeting on Monday, June 4 at 7:00 p.m. at 199 Hope Street.  The public is invited.

At the same CHNA meeting, a developer’s representative will present a proposal for the 150 Lloyd Avenue residence that currently displays a sign announcing the arrival of a suboxone office.  The proposal calls for the construction of 9 residential units on the property, which cannot happen unless and until the City Council approves a change in the zoning ordinance in that area from R-1 to R-4.  I will be attending the meeting and listening with interest both to the proposal and the questions and concerns raised by our neighbors.

Recently, a property owner rented a two-family home on College Hill to 13 students, well beyond the past use and/or designed capacity of the house.  When neighbors asked the Division of Inspection and Standards whether the City regulated this practice, they learned that existing laws did not apply.  (The City Council enacted a 3-student limit for single family homes only.)  In response, I introduced an ordinance to extend the 3 student per unit limit to all multifamily homes in all zones.  After corresponding with some property owners (who were concerned that the original version was overbroad) and working with the Law Department, I will be submitting an amended version to the Ordinance Committee on Tuesday night, June 5.  The new version will apply only to 2-family houses located in R-1 or R-1A zones.  The Ordinance Committee will set a date for a public hearing, and the City Plan Commission will review the proposal before the Ordinance Committee or the City Council takes any action on it.

Sincerely,

sam signature

May 27 Ward Letter

While you enjoy this Memorial Day weekend’s start of the unofficial summer season, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the holiday and its origins in the Civil War.  In addition to inflicting the greatest number of casualties in our country’s history, that war was a major turning point in our identity as a nation committed to the value of human dignity.  We have come a long way since then, and still have very far to go, but we fought the Civil War for the principle that our nation’s identity is based upon shared ideals and principles, not on racial identity.  This week’s letter discusses the School Department budget.

Download a pdf copy.

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