Category Archives: Ward Letters 2018

October 6 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying Columbus Day weekend. This week’s letter discusses regulation of student housing, regulation of short-term rentals, tax stabilization agreements and the school bus driver strike.

On Tuesday, October 9 at 3:30 p.m. at 444 Westminster Street, a committee of the City Plan Commission hold a public meeting will review possible legislation to regulate student housing. Robert Azar from the Planning Department of Planning will share with us the Department’s ideas for both student housing and short-term rentals, such as AirBnB. Our neighborhood meeting, co-sponsored by Councilwoman LaFortune and Helen Anthony, the Democratic candidate to succeed me in Ward 2, will take place on Wednesday, October 10 at 6:00 p.m. at the Nathan Bishop Middle School Cafeteria. Please try to come and share your ideas.

At Thursday night’s meeting, the City Council gave second and final passage to a tax stabilization agreement (TSA) for the College Hill Edge development on Steeple Street. Some of you shared with me your opposition to this project, primarily for two reasons. The first was that it would be bad for the neighborhood. I attended the City Plan Commission and spoke in opposition to the additional height they acquired, which I believe aggravated some negative impacts. Others noted that the project would not provide relief for those in need of affordable housing, which is also true. With that said, I voted in favor of the ordinance because it was a project in excess of $50 million, and it met the standard criteria (apprentice training, local hiring efforts, etc.) to qualify for a TSA based on prior history. Because of our City’s high commercial property tax rate, the TSA is generally the only way to encourage new development. I would like to see the City enact a standard TSA similar to other cities such as Philadelphia to avoid the delay and ordeal involved with the current one-off proceedings. It may be possible to include some contribution ot affordable housing as part of such a standard document, consistent with the overall goal of building the City’s tax base.

This past Monday (October 1), the School Department Oversight Committee met to, among other things, review the School Department’s efforts to mitigate the impacts of the school bus driver strike. We learned that the City has essentially no leverage to resolve the situation, which was described as a national dispute. The national Teamsters union wants to require First Student to contribute to their national multi-employer pension fund, and First Student’s opposes because of the lack of adequate funding for the multi-employer fund, and the risk of First Student’s becoming liable for the entire fund’s shortfalls. While we cannot adjudicate the merits of their positions, the bottom line is that Providence students are being hurt by this national dispute, and the current contract, which was shaped by First Student’s leverage as the only viable bidder, makes their problem our problem. The Superintendent noted the heroic efforts of parents, students and educators to cope with this crisis, but it is creating a strain and many children are falling through the cracks. At the end of the day, it is clear we need to restructure the City’s school bus program to make it more resilient and less vulnerable to any vendor’s problems.


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September 30 Ward Letter

We are now in full campaign season for the decisions we will make in November for, among other positions, the United States Senate, the Governor and the Mayor.  In the meantime, the City’s work continues.  This week’s letter will discuss the school bus driver strike, the teacher union’s modification of its “work to rule” program and a request for your suggestions of neighborhood organizations and projects worthy of modest financial support.

Download a pdf copy.

The school bus vendor (First Student) stopped providing bus service on Thursday due to a strike by its bus drivers.  Earlier last week, the School Department Oversight Committee reviewed what contractual rights the Providence Public Schools had in light of the termination of service by its contractor.  We learned that the contract contains a “force majeure” clause that exempts the vendor from responsibility to the Providence Public Schools for a list of conditions, the bulk of which describe catastrophic events beyond First Student’s control.  We were surprised, however, to learn that the list also includes the possibility of a strike, which in my opinion is an event within First Student’s control.  According to a Report by WPRI-TV, the School Department solicited bids that place this responsibility on the vendor’s tab; however, First Student negotiated a change to relieve its responsibility.  While I do not know the details of the negotiations, I suspect that First Student had extensive leverage due to the absence of other competitive and/or qualifying bids.  When I was on the School Board in 2000-02, other vendors were reluctant to bid for Providence because we required them to garage their buses (and pay property tax) in Providence.  While this requirement may be beneficial for the City’s tax revenues, the School Department Oversight Committee will ask the administration to develop other alternatives that would allow more bidders and the benefits of competition in awarding the next contract.  The School Department Oversight Committee will be meeting on Monday, October 1 at 6:00 to receive an update concerning the impacts of this unfortunate strike.

Also at last week’s meeting, the School Department Oversight Committee received a brief update from the Superintendent concerning contract negotiations with the Providence Teachers Union and the status of their decision to “work to rule,” under which teachers would refrain from performing any work beyond the specific requirements of the contract.  On this basis, teachers had declined to write college reference letters for high school students, but the Superintendent reported last week that teachers have reconsidered this particular measure, and are now writing college recommendation letters.  I believe this was a wise move by the teachers, because most parents with whom I spoke were blaming the teachers union, not the administration, for this action.  Some parents asked whether it would make sense to negotiate this and other types of “optional” teacher work into the next contract. I shared my view that the contract (which currently is around 70 pages in length) should be shorter, rather than longer, and that it would be a mistake to view the contract as the maximum amount of work that teachers will perform, as well as the minimum.  Instead, most teachers in my experience are highly skilled professionals who are truly committed to the success of their students, and their individual initiatives should be encouraged and appreciated.

As a result of my decision not to seek re-election, I plan to close out my campaign account by the end of this year.  This has allowed me to show my appreciation for the classroom teachers at four of our neighborhood schools (King, Gregorian, Bishop and Classical) by working with their PTO’s (King, Gregorian and Bishop) and Alumni Association (Classical) to purchase and distribute $50 Staples gift cards for each teacher to pay for classroom supplies that they often have to fund out of their own pockets.  (I also am working with the School Department to identify a conduit to make a similar contribution to Hope High School’s teachers, as campaign finance laws do not permit me to contribute the funds directly to the school.)  While this effort will require the majority of the funds in my account, I still will have a remaining balance that I can contribute to charitable organizations.  I welcome your suggestions for modest gifts, particularly for groups or organizations that operate in our neighborhood and/or benefit our neighbors.  Please feel free to send me an email with your suggestions.


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September 23 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying this beautiful first weekend of Autumn.  This week’s letter discusses the School Department’s compliance with a Department of Justice investigation of its English Language Learner program, preparations for a possible school bus driver strike, and an upcoming community meeting to discuss regulation of AirBnB and student housing.

On Monday, September 24, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, Third Floor, the School Department Oversight Committee will meet to review, among other things, the School Department’s English Language Learner (ELL) program and a potential strike by school bus drivers.

During the summer, the School Department announced that it had reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) concerning its program for English language learners (ELL).  It has been known for years that Rhode Island’s Hispanic students have the lowest performance on the national standardized tests, and the DOJ investigation highlighted many of the reasons why this is the case, including a significant deficit of qualified teachers.  The causes of this problem include a national shortage of qualified teachers and a State funding formula that does not provide adequate resources for this need.  When the General Assembly approved the current formula in 2010, I testified concerning this defect, and I repeated my concerns when the State reviewed the formula a few years ago.  This defect, which resulted from a political accommodation in 2010, makes Rhode Island’s formula an outlier nationally.  The DOJ settlement agreement calls for significant improvements without identifying a sustainable path to achieve them.  The School Department Oversight Committee will review the School Department’s plans asking, among other things, how the settlement will affect that Department’s overall program both for children learning the English language and the other children in the Providence Public Schools.

A vendor named First Student provides school bus service to Providence students, and it has reached an impasse with the Teamsters’ Union to which its bus drivers belong.  The bus drivers have taken a strike vote, and a strike is expected to begin Thursday, September 27.  The School Department Oversight Committee will ask the School Department to discuss its contingency plans publicly, and may enter executive session to inquire as to what legal remedies the School Department has when its vendor fails to provide the services it contracted to provide due to an internal problem, such as a strike by its bus drivers.

On Wednesday, October 10 at 6:00 p.m. at the Nathan Bishop Middle School Cafeteria, Councilwoman LaFortune, Ward 2 Democratic candidate Helen Anthony and I will co-host a neighborhood meeting to discuss efforts to regulate short-term rentals (such as AirBnb) and student housing in Providence.  Robert Azar, the Deputy Director of the Planning Department, will present the Department’s current thinking on both of these areas.

At a neighborhood meeting earlier this summer, Councilwoman Lafortune and I invited public comment concerning short-term rentals.  We learned that some of them had adverse neighborhood impacts, particularly where the property owner essentially served as an absentee landlord.  We also learned that AirBnB rentals help other Providence residents have reduced those impacts by renting out spare rooms while occupying the rest of their residence, or through careful screening of potential guests.  The Planning Department has been developing proposed legislation it will present to the City Plan Commission later this fall, and Mr. Azar will share the Department’s current thinking of how to enhance the benefits of short-term rentals while minimizing the adverse impacts.

Earlier this summer, the City Plan Commission organized a subcommittee to review regulation of student housing, following the discovery of a lease by a Providence landlord of a six-bedroom two-family house on College Hill to thirteen undergraduate students.  I introduced legislation the City Plan Commission endorsed that would place a 3-student limit on housing units in R-1 and R-1A zones (thus, a 2-family house could have a maximum of 3 students in each unit), while Councilman Yurdin introduced legislation I co-sponsored to place a limit of 4 undergraduate students in each unit in all zones, for which legislation Councilman Yurdin has withdrawn his support but which I still co-sponsor.  Neither measure has drawn broad support in the City Council.  The Planning Department is developing its own version that Mr. Azar will discuss at this meeting.  Please try to attend and share your ideas.


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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.


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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.


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