October 30, 2022 Letter

I hope you are looking forward to a scary Halloween. In this letter I will invite you to a virtual community meeting and share my thoughts about the questions this year’s general election ballot. I appreciate your patience in reading this longer-than-usual email due to the large number of issues that appear on the ballot.

1.     Virtual Community Meeting – Wednesday, November 9, 7:00-8:30 p.m.

Some of the best projects I have worked on at both the City and State level have resulted from ideas I have learned from constituents. I invite you to join me at a virtual community meeting a week from Wednesday (November 9) so I can learn your ideas and priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session in January. If you would like to join, please send me an email, and I will send you back a link.

2.     Ballot Questions

           A number of you have asked me to share my thoughts about the questions that appear on the ballot. Having taken advantage of the “early voting” program last week, I would like to share with you how I voted and my reasons for doing so. 

a.     State Ballot Questions (Questions 1-3)

Ballot Questions 1-3 seek voter approval for the issuance of three bonds. You can read summaries of the proposals in Secretary of State’s Voter Information Handbook, and/or in an article published in the Providence Journal.  

Question 1 seeks voter approval to renovate and refurbish buildings on the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus. In addition the summaries provide by the Secretary of State and Boston Globe (above), there is a further description of Question on in an article in the Boston Globe. The funds would pay for renovations to academic buildings that house programs in ocean engineering and research, wave and acoustics studies and other disciplines that fit within the broader rubric of the “blue economy.”

Question 2 seeks voter approval for the issuance of $250 million in bonds to repair school buildings across the State.

Question 3 seeks voter approval for the issuance of $50 million bonds to pay for restoration of vulnerable coastal areas and floodplains ($16 million), small business energy loans ($5 million), improvements at Roger Williams Park ($12 million), open space purchases ($5 million), Narragansett Bay restoration ($3 million), forest restoration ($3 million) and remediation of toxic materials on “brownfields” industrial sites to permit their reuse ($4 million).

I voted “Yes” for each of these proposals. The total amount of bond funding ($400 million) fits within the State’s overall borrowing capacity without creating any strains, and while interest rates are higher than they were at the start of this year, they are still within a reasonable range. Questions 1 and 2 provide for overdue renovations for the facilities at the University of Rhode Island and our State’s public schools respectively. In both cases, the bond funding will support the construction of appropriate facilities for quality education without building new versions of the Taj Mahal. Question 3 provides a broad package of funding of a number of smaller projects. While this package is not congruent with my own preference for how invest $50 million of capital funds, in my opinion the projects are worthy of public investment. I am particularly interested in the coastal restoration, Narragansett Bay restoration, forest restoration and “brownfields” remediation components of this package.

b.     Local Ballot Questions (Questions 4-14)

Question 4 requests Providence voter approval for issuance of a bond to fund up to $125 million in school repairs. These funds will be used for renovations of school buildings approved by the Rhode Island Department of Education, which will make them eligible for State reimbursement of approximately 80%-85%. These funds will represent a “down payment” on a much larger set of renovations needed to provide our City’s children with an adequate (never mind a “state of the art”) learning environment, and I voted “Yes” on 4.

Questions 5-14 seek voter approval of various revisions to the City’s Home Rule Charter, and our Council representative Helen Anthony has provided an excellent summary with her recommendations you can read by clicking here. I followed Councilwoman Anthony’s expert advice and voted Yes on Questions 8, 10, 12 and 14, and No on Questions 5, 6, 7, 9, 11 and 13, for the reasons she states. To her excellent analysis I can add a few points from my own City Council experience.

Questions 5, 6, 7 and 13 (re-approval of mayoral appointees, lower threshold to hire consultants, removal procedure for appointed officers and City Treasurer powers) all relate to the balance of power between the City Council and the Mayor. In my first term on the Council (2011-14), Mayor Taveras and Council President Solomon had a productive working relationship, and the types of power struggles contemplated by these Charter provisions did not occur – we were too busy addressing the City’s major challenges. In contrast, under the City Council leadership of my second term (2015-18) and the current term, these squabbles have increased, and while I was on the City Council it was more often the case that the Mayor represented City-wide interests, while the Council Presidents in question were trying to leverage their position to extract a local (or in some cases personal) advantage. The same analysis applies to Question 13 (City Treasurer powers), as the Treasurer (who is part of the City Council office) during my second term would refuse to sign City check that were properly issued, thereby abusing his authority to the detriment of the City.  I voted NO on each of these questions.

Question 11 (changing the School Board composition to five elected members and five mayoral appointments) does not make sense at this time, as Helen indicates, because the school district is under State control. I had the privilege of serving on the School Board during 2000-02 as a Mayoral (Cianci) appointment. During that time, I was able to act without political influence, instead basing all of my decisions on what I considered to be in the children’s best interest. (It may have helped that Mayor Cianci was otherwise occupied during those years with Operation Plunderdome.) While we faced a number of issues on which we has our disagreements, I found during those years that the School Board based its decisions on the Board members’ perception of the children’s best interest. In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, Mayor Elorza and former Mayors Paolino and Taveras state their case against an elected school board.

I can see some advantages to elected School Board members (who can respond more directly to a parent’s concern about a particular situation) but also risks associated with the involvement of political factions, campaign finance and the participation of outside actors in school board elections. Also, I question whether it is good policy to have a 10-member body, as that could generate 5-5 tie votes that prevent important issues from being resolved. For these reasons, I voted “No” on Question 11.

In conclusion, I encourage you to exercise your right to vote either by mail, early at 444 Westminster or at your precinct on November 8, and I look forward to your feedback the following night about the upcoming General Assembly session.