I hope the recent New Year holiday allowed you to reflect on events of 2018 and ponder your hopes and plans for 2019. This week’s letter reviews the recently concluded term of the City Council and offers my hopes for the new term that begins next week.
I hope you are enjoying the opportunity to get together with friends and family at the gatherings that accompany the holiday season. This week’s letter discusses the teacher’s contract, organizing parents of public school students, regulation of student housing and the City Council’s vote to override the Mayor’s veto of the Hope Point Tower project.
The recent passing of President George H.W. Bush offered an opportunity to reflect on his legacy and our country’s path in the post-Cold War era, allowing us to build on what we have gained since then and to restore what we have lost. This week’s letter discusses the City’s school facilities program and the City Council’s stewardship of City resources and programs.
I hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving, and that you are looking forward to the upcoming holiday (including for some of us tonight’s beginning of Chanukah). This week’s letter discusses our public schools’ education program, the public school facilities and the Hope Point Tower project.
Friday’s Providence Journal contained two reports relating to public education. The first article describes the test scores from Rhode Island schools in the first year of taking the Massachusetts standardized test, revealing a wide gap between Rhode Island and Massachusetts students. The second article reports the filing of a lawsuit by Rhode Island public school students asserting a right to quality civics education under the United States Constitution. The first article notes a critical turning point 25 years ago, when “[a]fter a 1993 lawsuit challenged the way schools were funded, Massachusetts established high standards, developed tests to measure whether students were meeting those standards, tied high school graduation to a test, and set a higher bar for teachers.” Historically, the public education programs in Rhode Island and Massachusetts were comparable prior to the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, which was instituted after that state’s highest court ruled that the Massachusetts Constitution contained a fundamental right to education. Sadly, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reached a different result when it reviewed the Rhode Island Constitution in 1995, and in my opinion this made all the difference, as Massachusetts elected officials used the court ruling as “political cover” to make difficult educational policy decisions for which Rhode Island has lacked the political will; hence the need for a lawsuit declaring a right to education under the United States Constitution. On the other hand, the federal lawsuit (in which I am pleased to appear as associate pro bono legal counsel) alleges that Rhode Island’s public education program’s emphasis on reading and mathematics has crowded out other important subjects, such as civic education.
On Wednesday, December 5 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, Third Floor, the Committee on School Department Oversight will receive a report concerning current plans to repair and improve Providence’s public school facilities. On Election Day, Providence voters approved a $160 million school facilities bond, while Rhode Island voters approved a $250 million bond, some of which will be available to Providence. These two bonds provide a significant opportunity to Providence to upgrade its inventory of school buildings, but many questions remain about priorities and timing. We hope to learn some answers to these and other questions on Wednesday night.
This past Friday afternoon, Mayor Elorza announced his veto of the zone change ordinance requested by the developer of the Hope Point Tower. He issued a statement indicating that the developer was agreeable to contributing to maintain the neighboring park and to comply with a schedule, the developer would not agree to give the City approval authority over the project’s design. The City Council now has 30 days in which to consider overriding the veto, which would require at least 10 votes in favor, which would require at least one more favorable vote than the developer currently has. I foresee a lot of arm-twisting over the next month. If that is not successful, the developer may ask the General Assembly to approve superseding legislation, but even if it passes, it may result in court proceedings about whether the State can intervene in this type of local regulation. In short, there are more twists and turns ahead.
I hope you survived our first snow storm. I had an adventure returning home from City Hall, when even Olney Street proved impassable for many cars. This week’s letter discusses the City Council’s consideration of the Hope Point Tower project.
The Hope Point Tower project was submitted in April to the City Council for a requested zoning change. It was first reviewed by the City Plan Commission, whose responsibility is to determine whether the requested change was consistent with the City’s comprehensive plan, a finding that State law requires in order for a requested zoning change to be legally valid. The City Plan Commission considered the requested zoning change to be inconsistent with the comprehensive plan, and on that basis recommended that the City Council not approve. The Ordinance Committee held a public hearing on July 18, and voted to recommend that the City Council deny the petition. However, when the City Council met on September 6, a majority voted to send the matter back to committee for a second public hearing as the developer had not attended the first one. I, along with Councilwoman LaFortune, voted against this measure because in my experience developers always attend hearings at which they are requesting valuable zoning relief, and giving this developer “two bites at the apple” would set a bad precedent. The Ordinance Committee held a second public hearing on October 22, and at a meeting on November 8, voted in favor of approval. The matter then went to the full City Council last Thursday, November 15.
In preparation for that meeting, I researched the developer’s eligibility for tax relief. I learned that the developer will qualify for a 20-year tax stabilization agreement (“TSA”), which will save it $81 million in property taxes over that period. The TSA will be awarded by the I-195 Commission without input from the City Council. The developer estimated that the final project would yield between 62 and 85 jobs with an average salary of less than $35,000, hardly worth the $1 million per job that the $81 million tax credit would generate. Based on this information, Councilwoman LaFortune proposed an amendment to the zoning change to require the developer to meet certain conditions to obtain approval, including setting aside $50,000 per year to maintain the adjacent City park and either provide 15% low-to-moderate income housing units or $100,000 contributed to an affordable housing fund for the shortfall between the number of such units provided and 15% of the total. Given the developer’s preference for luxury apartments, this likely would result in no affordable units being built, but instead a $15,000 charge per luxury unit to be contributed to an affordable housing fund. Given that these units are likely to have valuations well above $500,000 each, this would be an additional cost of 3% or less. Unfortunately, the City Council voted down this amendment.
We then moved to discussion of the project as proposed. I was concerned about whether it complied with the comprehensive plan, given the fact that the Planning Commission had found it had not, and the language in the ordinance supplied by the developer’s attorney was not persuasive when I read it. For that reason, I asked the Chair of the Ordinance Committee to explain specifically how the project met the legal requirement of complying with the City’s comprehensive plan. The Chair, who had spoken up moments ago to cut off debate on the amendment, said his voice did not allow him to answer my question, and proposed that the project’s lobbyist answer it instead. I asked if anyone else on the committee could explain the basis for meeting this requirement, and nobody did. I consider it legislative malpractice for City Council members to vote to approve a zoning change that must comply with the comprehensive plan without being able to state why they believe their vote met this requirement. The City Council nonetheless gave the zoning change initial passage that night. (All ordinances must be passed twice at separate meetings, perhaps because we are a unicameral legislative body.)
In the ordinary course, the City Council would consider the matter for second passage at its next regularly scheduled meeting on December 6. Not content with this schedule, the developer recruited the measure’s supporters to schedule a special meeting for a second vote on this Tuesday, November 20. There is no need to speed up the vote in this way, but the timing of this measure has been problematic at earlier stages. First, there was the unprecedented decision to “slow down” the process by not holding a vote after the first public hearing, and then holding a second public hearing for the stated reason that the developer wanted the chance to speak after having missed the first one. Then, the Ordinance Committee did not vote the night of the second hearing as it usually does, but instead waited until the Thursday after the election, perhaps because some of the Ordinance Committee members who changed their vote that night had previously announced their opposition to the zoning change during their re-election campaigns. This sequence of slowing down and then speeding up the City Council’s review is not only unusual, but also detrimental to the public’s perception of the integrity of the legislative process. While it is true that there is an element of “sausage making” in most legislation, the twists and turns this measure has taken make for particularly rancid sausage.
if (as expected) the City Council votes second passage on Tuesday night, the measure will go the Mayor to either sign or veto.
This Veterans’ Day weekend allows us to honor the memory of our fellow citizens who have defended our country over years, which is the best way to remember a day otherwise known for marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the first world war, which proved to be an object lesson in the initial failure of diplomacy to avoid a pointless war, the brutality and horror of new battlefield tactics, and a failure of diplomacy to establish any kind of stable peace. This week’s ward letter discusses the Nicholson Estate subdivision, the Hope Point tower project and the smoking ban ordinance.
The Nicholson Estate at 288 Blackstone Boulevard consists of a mansion sitting on 3 acres of ground. A developer proposes to raze the mansion and subdivide the property into 10 lots. You can click here to view the Current Conditions and Proposed Project. The developer and builder met with residents last week, and answered questions. The builder is completing a development on Balton Road that neighbors have criticized because of the arrangement of houses close to the road on lots that seem too small. The developer claims that the proposed project will be less crowded due to the larger size of the house lots (most in excess of 10,000 square feet), but offered no promises about the actual design of the houses, as each person who purchases a lot can make an individual decision. The developer said the large house is not marketable, due to its poor condition, and the floor plan is not amenable to preservation as condos (which itself would require separate approval). Given that the property is not in a local preservation district, there appears to be no clear source of local regulation to prevent the subdivision from being approved in its current form, but the developer agreed to look into a proposal by one neighbor to rearrange the houses to front on an internal road, with their back yards facing the external wall. The City Plan Commission had been scheduled to review the project on November 13, but now it appears that the matter will be continued to the Commission’s December 18 meeting.
At its meeting this past Thursday, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee voted to recommend approval of the Hope Point Tower project. Given the fact that the same committee previously had voted to recommend against approval, and that the recent supplemental public hearing provided no significant additional information, one can question the policy reason for some Committee members to switch their votes. For that matter, the decision to hold a second public hearing itself set a bad precedent, as it was held based on the developer’s claim that he had not received an appropriate invitation to the first hearing. Prior to this one, developers always attended these hearings without a formal invitation, as they understood the need to demonstrate interest in receiving City Council approval for their application. By holding a second hearing for this particular project, the City Council effectively established a new procedure whereby all developers will have an incentive to stay away from the public hearing, learn what was said at it, and then request a second hearing if they are not pleased with the outcome of the first one. (At this point, even if the City Council invites the developer to the first hearing, we can anticipate new objections, such as the invitation did not provide sufficient notice, was not properly worded, etc.) More generally, from my review of the second hearing record (and Councilman Principe’s cogently stated objections) there does not appear to be a clear reason for taking a comprehensive plan and zoning code that was developed over years, and throwing them aside for a single project. The City Council will review the proposed zoning change at its November 15 meeting.
Last June, the City Council approved an ordinance imposing a smoking ban in Kennedy Plaza. While ostensibly promoted for health reasons, the main proponent was the business community, which believed that the smoking ban would serve to reduce the number of homeless people who populate the plaza, thereby making the area more acceptable to the business people who work nearby. I voted in favor of the smoking ban, which the Mayor vetoed. When the City Council considered a vote to override a veto, I offered a compromise; namely, to limit the duration of the smoking ban to change the culture in the Kennedy Plaza neighborhood, but to end it on a date certain because it appeared to criminalize poverty. I discussed this compromise with Mr. Paolino, and we reached a handshake agreement that he would support a time limitation of October 1, 2018 if I voted to override the veto. I voted to override, and introduced legislation to “sunset” the smoking ban as of October 1, 2018. When the Ordinance Committee rejected this compromise based on a stated need for “data,” I asked Mr. Paolino to write a letter explaining his support of the “sunset” without data, as he previously had agreed. When he denied my request, I wrote Mr. Paolino a letter urging him to keep his word, given the damage that the City suffers when business people fail to keep their word. He sent a reply that essentially accepted the fact of a handshake agreement he had not honored, but which offered reasons (based on the actions of other people) for why he believed he was justified in not honoring the agreement he reached. I do not find that position to be particularly responsive or convincing, but nonetheless I see an opportunity. Currently there is a stalemate between business owners who support having a smoking ban on the books, and an administration that is unwilling to enforce it vigorously. It therefore seems worthwhile to consider a temporary smoking ban that is more actively enforced. This would not be a complete victory for either side, but it could be both a reasonable compromise and an improvement for both sides over the status quo.
The murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh raise concerns that dwarf the City issues I discuss with you here. For those of you interested in hearing an illuminating but disturbing analysis of connections between and among the “alt-right” movement, anti-Semitism and this country’s relationship with the government of Israel, I recommend a recent New York Times podcast you can listen to by clicking here. Returning to our City, I will discuss in this week’s letter a City perspective on some of the election choices we have as voters on Tuesday.
Governor Gina Raimondo contributed to our City’s prosperity through the State’s economic incentives programs, which attracted many businesses to Providence, creating jobs and over time will expand the tax base. She also promoted a review of the school aid funding formula, which produced modest improvements for the additional needs of English language learners. In contrast, her two principal opponents have painted a negative picture of our City in their campaigns, making it unlikely they would help our City address our concerns if elected.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea helped our City two years ago when then-President Aponte of the City Council interfered with the recall election of former Councilman Kevin Jackson. Secretary Gorbea used her office to set the date of the recall election notwithstanding Mr. Aponte’s obstruction of a City Council vote to confirm that date. Without her decisive action, Mr. Aponte and his allies in the then-“leadership” of the City Council may have succeeded in depriving the voters of Ward 3 of the opportunity to recall Mr. Jackson from office by a margin of 91% to 9%.
Treasurer Seth Magaziner helped the City in two important ways. First, he provided technical assistance to the City Council’s Pension Study Working Group by providing sample actuarial runs that calculated the fiscal impact of potential pension reforms. He also helped develop and advocate for the State’s plan to issue $500 million in bonds to enhance school construction and repairs, the first phase of which is subject to voter approval on Tuesday. If approved, this plan would not only provide additional needed funds for Providence, but also would provide some of the funds on a pre-funded basis, an improvement over the current regime of State reimbursement after the City fronts all the money, placing greater strain on our bonding capacity.
Mayor Elorza addressed the City’s short-term financial issues, closing the $13 million accumulated operating fund deficit and replacing it with a steadily growing “rainy day” fund. He is now pivoting towards addressing the $1 billion unfunded pension liability. While he has not yet articulated a plan to address this issue adequately (which in itself would be only the first step in mobilizing support to implement such a plan), I believe he is the candidate who is best able to address this serious issue in a serious manner. Because he is subject to term limits, Mayor Elorza, if re-elected, could make the difficult decisions to solve the pension problem that elude office holders who focus on their next re-election, at least that is my hope.
I hope you find these considerations useful, but even if you don’t, I urge you to exercise your right to vote this Tuesday to help place your mark on the shape of our federal, State and City government for the next two to four years. Thank you for your consideration.
I hope you are managing your sleep deficits – the drama of the Red Sox keeps many of us up until the wee hours, reducing productivity across New England. This week’s letter discusses parent engagement in the public schools, bus transportation and “work to rule.”
On Monday night (Oct. 22), Councilwoman LaFortune and I co-hosted a meeting for parents and interested residents concerning the recently concluded strike by school bus drivers, the Providence Teachers Union “work to rule” policy and ways for parents to have their voices heard. We were joined by School Board members, the Superintendent and the President of the Providence Teachers Union.
The School Department Oversight Committee reviewed the school bus driver strike in more detail, which I will describe below. With regard to “work to rule,” the Teachers Union President noted that the Union had agreed to allow teachers to write college recommendation letters as an exception to the general policy of refusing work outside the specific dictates of the contract. A number of parents raised specific issues at their school that were not known to the Providence Teachers Union President or the School Board leadership. I am hopeful these concerns will lead to further “exceptions” granted to the “work to rule” policy adopted by the Teachers Union. More generally, I can understand as a conceptual matter that an individual teacher upset about the slow pace of contract negotiations may make the personal decision to restrict her or his work to the minimum requirements, but I do not understand why the Teachers Union believes it is appropriate to prohibit individual teachers from doing more for students if the teacher has this (what I believe to be commendable) wish to serve students even in the wake of poor relations with management. I believe the Providence Teachers Union’s decision to relax “work to rule” for college recommendations was based on their assessment that parents were upset with their policy, which was hurting children. I am hopeful that the Union will see the wisdom of relaxing the application of “work to rule” to other aspects of teaching work (such as meeting with parents after school hours, as some parents cannot leave work during the day) to allow individual teachers to pursue their profession based on their own personal and professional ideals.
At the meeting, we also discussed the value in parents organizing, perhaps forming a Providence Parents Union to go along with the Providence Teachers Union and the Providence Students Union. A number of parents expressed their frustrations and concerns that the public schools are failing to address for their children. In an ideal world, these concerns would be addressed more thoroughly and more expeditiously, but the Providence Public Schools is a large and inadequately funded program. These challenges will not solve themselves; therefore we are encouraging parents to organize and advocate.
On Wednesday, October 24, the School Department Oversight Committee reviewed a proposed extension of the First Student contract for bus transportation for the current year and next school year. The School Board described the priorities that led to the award to First Student, including their promise to acquire a fleet of new buses with GPS. We also learned that the only other responsive bidder sought millions of dollars of extra money for the same service. Under those conditions, the School Board and the City approved the contract because these priorities were addressed at a reasonable price. The collective bargaining agreement that First Student recently entered with the Teamsters Union has a 3-year term, making any potential strikes over the next 1-1/2 years both unlikely and illegal. Finally, the School Department indicated that it would need the next year and a half to design and implement a procurement process that could lead to a different vendor with a clear “no strike” clause among other things, as it will take time to design and issue the request for proposals, and any new vendor will need additional time to acquire the buses and drivers. With that said, it is clear that the next bus contract will have to contain solid protections to prevent the harms that came from the recently concluded 11-day school bus driver strike.
Having spent some quality time on the East Bay Bike path and with the leaves in my back yard, I am now pleased to share with you news about ways to involve parents in School Department decisions, the Hope Point Tower and the school bus contract.
Last week, thankfully, the school bus strike ended after eleven days, resolving one of two major stresses that have affected our children’s education this year in the Providence Public Schools. During that time, parents circulated a petition expressing concern about both the strike and the impact of the Providence Teachers Union’s “work to rule” policy on their children’s education. It is clear that parents believe that the adults are making decisions (or failing to make decisions) that are harming the education of their children, and they want for this to change. On Monday evening, October 22 at 5:30 p.m. at the Providence Career and Technical Academy auditorium, Councilwoman LaFortune and I will co-host a public forum with invited guests Superintendent Maher and representatives from the Providence Teachers Union, the Mayor’s office and the Providence School Board. Each of the panelists will talk briefly about lessons learned from the school bus strike and the impacts of “work to rule.” We will then invite you to ask questions of the panel. We also will encourage everyone to sign an address list which may help begin an organization. Everyone is welcome, especially parents, so please come if you can.
While our meeting is taking place, the Ordinance Committee will hold a public hearing at City Hall to hear, for a second time, public comment regarding the zoning change requested by developer Jason Fane to build the Hope Point Tower. After the last hearing, I decided to vote against the project for reasons I explained in my July 22 letter. The City Council voted to hold a second hearing because Mr. Fane complained he had not been invited to the first one. Given that the hearing was open to the public and other developers in Mr. Fane’s position have, in the past, attended these hearings and spoken without the need for a formal invitation, the justification for a second public hearing was at best tenuous. I suspect that there will be substantial overlap between the content of the two hearings. With that said, in the unlikely event that the second hearing produces substantial relevant new information beyond what we learned before, I will give it fair consideration.
On Wednesday, October 24 at 5:30 p.m., the School Department Oversight Committee will consider whether to recommend approval of two consecutive one-year extensions of the current school bus contract with First Student. (The contract expired last school year; therefore, the first extension would run retroactively to the start of the current school year.) As part of its review, the Committee will investigate the recent strike, including such questions as how the “force majeure” clause excusing First Student from responsibility for a strike was negotiated into the contract, what understandings the administration reached with First Student and/or the Teamsters Union to facilitate the resolution of the strike, what assurances exist to prevent another strike from happening, and other related topics. As these questions imply, the recent experience reduces my confidence in First Student and increases my perception of the value of a more competitive bidding process in the award of this contract.
I hope you are enjoying (or at least surviving) the excitement and drama the Red Sox are bringing into our homes. This week’s letter will discuss regulation of student housing and short term rentals, the school bus driver strike and the teacher union’s “work to rule” program.
Last Tuesday afternoon, a subcommittee of the City Plan Commission met to review a proposed ordinance to regulate student housing. The ordinance proposed allowing property owners to rent up to three students in every residential unit as a matter of right, and allowing owners the opportunity to apply for a special use permit that would allow up to five students per unit, depending on the number of bedrooms it contains. The new regulation would apply to all housing (multifamily) in all zones. Neighbors/residents at the meeting advocated for a strict 3 student per unit limit, while property owners objected to any limit below the actual number of bedrooms in the housing in question, as well as the need to apply for permission. Some spoke of the opportunity to gain further help from colleges and universities to regulate student behavior without enacting any regulation of property owners. The discussion continued at a neighborhood meeting on Wednesday night. The Planning Department will take this feedback into consideration before presenting a revised ordinance to the City Plan subcommittee in several weeks.
Also at Wednesday’s neighborhood meeting, Robert Azar of the Planning Department described the Department’s approach to regulating short term rentals, such as AirBnb. Mr. Azar described three categories of short-term rentals. The first (and lowest impact) is when a host stays in their home while renting out a room to visitor. The second is when a host rents out their entire home on a periodic basis while still keeping their home as their primary residence. The third is when the host is an absentee, and a steady stream of guests comes and goes. The Planning Department will propose permitting the first category to continue unregulated, while banning the third category completely. Hosts in the middle category will apply for and obtain a one-year special use permit to operate, with the opportunity to revoke the permit in the event of being a “bad neighbor.” There are other details to work out, such as whether there is an overall cap on the number of nights rented out per year, and/or whether hosts will have an initial probationary period before getting their first one-year permit. The Planning Department expects to present a draft proposal at the City Plan Commission’s next meeting on Tuesday, October 16 at 4:45 p.m. at 444 Westminster Street.
Over the past several weeks, our public school children have faced two significant stresses, namely a strike by school bus drivers and a decision by the teachers’ union to “work to rule,” under which the union directs teachers not to perform any work beyond the specific tasks spelled out in the contract. Many parents signed a petition expressing their concerns about these stresses, and Councilwoman LaFortune and I met with a group of them last weekend to discuss ways they can advocate for their children. Twelve years ago, parents formed the East Side Public Education Coalition to improve Nathan Bishop Middle School, and continued for several years to work with officials to improve public education. It would be wonderful if parents used the current challenges to form a new organization for this purpose. We hope to announce a public meeting soon to discuss the “work to rule” issue to provide the parents with a platform to build a new organization.