Providence City Plan Commission silences the public on Port garbage project

Ahlquist: It would it be a simple majority vote to hear from the people tonight under the Open Meetings Act. West: I don’t think that’s appropriate in this case, but thanks for the comment. Ahlquist: It’s not a comment, it’s a request that you open the public hearing and you have a vote to do so under the Open Meetings
Photo for Providence City Plan Commission silences the public on Port garbage project

Published on January 22, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist

Ahlquist: It would it be a simple majority vote to hear from the people tonight under the Open Meetings Act.

West: I don’t think that’s appropriate in this case, but thanks for the comment.

Ahlquist: It’s not a comment, it’s a request that you open the public hearing and you have a vote to do so under the Open Meetings Act.

Going to a public hearing that begins at 4:45pm in downtown Providence is a very difficult thing for many people. It requires leaving work early and finding parking downtown during rush hour. It requires missing classes or losing paying wage hours at your job. It means securing childcare, transportation, paying for parking, and then, when you get there, waiting for the board, council, commission or legislative body to get through all it’s procedural items and any other items not of interest to you before the issue you are interested in gets addressed.

It is especially annoying when the issue or agenda item you made that sacrifice of time and money for gets cancelled at the last minute.

For many boards, councils, commissions and legislative bodies, this is a strategy. Getting together a large number of people and motivating them to come out to such a meeting, especially given all the obstacles we have in our lives to get there, is a burden. Having the meeting cancelled makes it harder to get a good turnout the next time. This saves quasi-judicial bodies from having to listen to concerned residents so they can better serve the wealthy and well-connected.

See: The Washington Park community wonders: How can we prevent a new business from further destroying our children’s health?

On Tuesday evening the Providence City Plan Commission was supposed to hear from 487 Allens LLC, applicant Christopher Koehler and his lawyer, former State Representative John DeSimone, about a new garbage transfer station proposed for the corner of Allens Avenue and Thurbers Avenue in the Port of Providence. This transfer station would bring five millions pounds of garbage a day into a relatively small facility in the Port of Providence, on 188 trucks, 24 hours a day.

The people who live in the Washington Park area by the Port, who are already subject to the worst, most polluting industries in Providence, and already suffer from high asthma rates, are opposed to the transfer station. 75 people turned out on Tuesday to oppose it. But the applicant requested a last minute continuance, and turnout for the meeting was less than could be expected as a result. Media coverage was also cancelled at the last minute.

The Providence City Plan Commission granted the continuance so fast that the public was barely aware that their opportunity to speak was over before it even began.

“Hopefully anybody who’s here for that matter made note of the date, same time, same place,” said Providence City Plan Commission Chair Christine West. “It will be publicly advertised.”

West seemed to expect everyone to simply go home quietly and maybe return on March 17th when the item may (or may not, if there’s a further continuance) be heard.

They did not go home or leave quietly.

Here’s a transcript and video of the meeting:

Providence City Plan Commission Chair Christine West: So we do have a request for a land development project and public informational meeting number eight. We’re going to move [that] to the top of the agenda. We have a lot of folks here on that and we’ve received a number of letters. Bob, can you introduce this?

Robert “Bob” Azar, Deputy Director of Planning and Development, City of Providence: Yes. As you know, this is an application that’s been filed for a land development project for a facility on Allens Avenue. We have received a request in writing today from John DeSimone who’s the attorney on behalf of the applicant. He is requesting a continuance of tonight’s hearing to the March 17th, 2020 meeting. That would be two months from tonight.

West: March 17th. Commissioners, as you know, in our meeting materials, we also received a number of letters from community members and we received a joint letter from several council people specifically asking for a continuance in order to have public informational meetings and discussions. I think given the interest in this case that’s appropriate. So I recommend that we approve the request for a continuance.

Providence City Plan Commission Vice Chair Michael Gadzacko: I’ll make a motion to continue the agenda item number eight to the March 17th, 2020 meeting.

Providence City Plan Commission Commission Member Miguel Quezada: Second.

West: Any further discussion? All in favor of continuing say aye. All opposed say nay. All right. So again, hopefully anybody who’s here for that matter made note of the date, same time, same place. It will be publicly advertised.

Robert Azar and Christine West

Steve Ahlquist, UpriseRI: People would like to speak tonight on this.

West: We’ve already moved to continue it. We’re not prepared to hear this. We don’t have a stenographer….

Ahlquist: It would it be a simple majority vote to hear from the people tonight under the Open Meetings Act.

West: I don’t think that’s appropriate in this case, but thanks for the comment.

Ahlquist: It’s not a comment, it’s a request that you open the public hearing and you have a vote to do so under the Open Meetings Act.

Kelly Salvatore, Attorney to the Providence City Plan Commission: Under the rules and regulations of this board, there has to be a court stenographer here to open a public hearing, so they can’t open the public hearing.

Michael Gazdacko

Ahlquist: How are you doing the rest of the items on the agenda tonight?

Azar: The applicant’s not in the room either to provide testimony or to present the applications.

Ahlquist: But that wouldn’t stop the people who did show up from being able to speak, would it?

West: I would suggest that they use the offer of the council people to organize community meetings to learn more about the project and have this dialogue in a format that can be a true conversation. I think there’s a lot of information out there and I think there’s a lot to be gained…

Ahlquist: Just to be clear then – you are denying the people here the right to speak?

West: We are trying to give you the right to speak, but not at this particular hearing. We’re not going to be hearing that application tonight. I think it’s in everybody’s interest to have that forum offline.

Ahlquist: What other applications are you hearing tonight without a stenographer?

West: We’ve got the agenda…

Ahlquist: Right, but there’s no stenographer for those hearings either…

West: Every case is different.

Ahlquist: Right. This one requires a stenographer, the rest do not. I want to be clear on that because…

Azar: Some require stenographers, some do not. We require the applicants to provide the stenographer for them – and it’s not just the fact that there’s no stenographer here for this item, [but] that it’s being continued. It’s being continued at the request of the applicant.

Commission Members Harrison Bilodeau and Miguel Quezada

Ahlquist: But the applicant doesn’t decide whether these people can speak or not. How does the applicant have the right to overrule their freedom of speech?

West: You are welcome to come to the March 17th meeting.

Ahlquist: I’ll be there, but I just wanted to know your reasoning on this.

West: I think we’ve explained everything.

Crowd: No you haven’t. Not really.

Ahlquist: No, no one believes that. You have not adequately explained why the people are not able to speak to you tonight on this important issue to them.

West: The applicant has requested a continuance. Your city councilors have requested a continuance.

Crowd: And we’re requesting to be heard.

West: We have a requirement for stenographer that is not here.

Ahlquist: It’s on [the applicant] to have a stenographer. It’s not [up] you to have a stenographer…

West: It’s common practice that when we have an issue with this much information that, A. That there be community meetings so that you can talk freely – This format is a comment period.

Ahlquist: Will members of this board be at these community meetings?

West: Of course not, because that would be a repeat of this meeting. This meeting is designed to hear comments. It is not a dialogue. It’s not a community discussion. By having these offline, you have a greater chance to actually have a productive dialogue.

Ahlquist: But members of this board who actually vote will not be at these community meetings.

West: We have seen time and time again, over many, many years of experience that those community meetings are much more productive at having an equal exchange of information and getting your point across.

Ahlquist: No. The members of this board make the decision.

Monica Huertas, a member of the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee of Providence: We want to know who’s going to be there. They’re going to vote on this. Who’s going to be there so that they can hear us.

Ahlquist: The people who vote will not be hearing from the community. Is that what’s happening?

West: They have the opportunity to come back before this board and everybody will have the right to give their comments on March 17th.

Ahlquist: Will that be on the agenda? That it says actually public comment? Because it doesn’t say public comment on the agenda tonight.

West: Absolutely. We just continued it to a date certain. And what that means is that we will hear that matter and there will be a public hearing and everybody that comes here and signs up will have the right to speak. That’s how we are addressing your rights.

Pedro Espinal

Providence City Councilmember Pedro Espinal (Ward 13): Madam Chair, this will probably help clear things up. It’ll be continued to March 17th. What are the chances that this could be postponed again? Is there a limit that you allow for postponement? Is that a definite that they will be here on the 17th, because people hate to find out at the last minute that it’s being postponed again. But we haven’t any clear indication on that.

Azar: Thank you councilman. And I’ll say it to everybody who’s in this room, we appreciate that you took the time to come out here tonight and we understand that it’s frustrating that you don’t have the opportunity to hear from the applicant and to testify on this matter. This happens from time to time with applications for any number of reasons. Applications can get continued. There are, certain timeframes that apply to applications that come before this body.

In this case, if the applicant requests a continuance, those timeframes stop. So, to your question of could we prevent them from asking for another continuance? No. But it is at the board’s discretion to decide whether to continue or not. And if the board decides not to continue it’s incumbent on the applicant to present the application and then for the commission to take public testimony.

The commission always has to weigh the property rights of the applicant against the regulations and the zoning ordinance that are in effect. And the commission always strives to present the material in such a way that it’s intelligible to the public and to allow the public to comment. Unfortunately this is not a sort of community forum. This is a quasi judicial way of adjudicating an application with respect to the zoning ordinance in the comprehensive plan. So the commission is bound by the rules set forth in its regulations and set forth in state law. I understand that there’s a lot of people here who don’t have patience for the applicant and might think that the applicant is intentionally trying to frustrate them. This commission is subject to being frustrated as well, and at some point I would argue that the commission would deny a request for a continuance.

Huertas: Oh my God, we don’t want to hear about [the applicant]!

Crowd: I just want to remind you that you work for the City of Providence, not for the applicant.

Huertas: That’s right.

Doug Victor, member of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association: What I’m hearing is that we’re not allowed to speak tonight because there’s not a stenographer to record if it were to be an open hearing. But we’re not disallowed to raise our hands, everybody, for those of you who are opposing this port facility Allens Avenue LLC.

Look at the solidarity in this group and look at where we come from, look at each other because I think this is an opportunity for us to coalesce around the issues that are wrong and the issues that have come forward to the planning commission. There needs to be some kind of filters put in prior to these applications coming forward. There’s not enough lead time for the community to coalesce. Linda Perry has done an amazing job at coalescing people around this issue. So let’s stand united. Let’s talk to people. Let’s talk. Meet somebody you don’t know in this crowd. Say hello, so we were on a first name basis and let’s bring it forward.

West: Thank you for that. Alright. So I do encourage you to stay in the hallway if you’re going to talk to each other. You’re welcome, obviously, to stay for the rest of the agenda. But we’re going to proceed with the rest of the items. Thank you all for coming. We do see you and we will hear you.

Huertas: Who’s going to be at this meeting? Who’s going to be here on March 17th? I want to know because I want to talk to everybody. How are they going to do a vote and hear everything?

West: Again, we will have this hearing on March 17th.

Huertas: Is everybody going to be here as a full board?

West: Everybody who shows up from the full board. We have four members of a seven person board, so we need a quorum.

Before the hearing began people gathered on the steps outside 444 Westminster Street to talk about their opposition to the planned garbage transfer station. Here’s all the video:

“It looks like they’re going to continue the meeting, but we’re still here,” said Devon Pinkus, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement. “We’ll see what happens inside the meeting…”

“You’re looking at five million, seven million pounds of waste being dumped in that community,” said Providence City Councilmember Pedro Espinal. “Those trailers are going to be idling on Allens Avenue near the schools and putting out diesel fumes.”

Linda Perry, president of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, read a letter from John Kelly, the CEO of the Meeting Street School, in opposition to the project.

“I just want to tell these people to stop these racist tactics and stop polluting our neighborhoods,” said Monica Huertas. “The fact of the matter is that they will never ever ever propose some crazy shit like this in Newport or where people that have money live. And if they did, a couple folks would just write a letter and that it’ll be the end of it. But us, it’s year after year playing Whack-a-Mole. Every freaking couple of months we got gotta play Whack-a-Mole and say No LNG, no transfer station, no this, no that. Shell is poisoning us! Univar is doing this and it’s like enough is enough already.

“You know, the city of Providence, we already have come up with a comprehensive plan to take us into the future, right?” continued Huertas. “A group of community members, black and Brown community members who are mostly affected by climate change have already taken a stand and have put forth comprehensive policies and comprehensive goals to stop this. We’re not going to get a chance to do it if things like this are being proposed all the time.”

“They’re talking about bringing 25 hundred tons a day of garbage, into this facility,” said Kevin Budris, from the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). “That’s about 2/3rds the amount of garbage that goes to the central landfill, serving all of Rhode Island, every single day.”

“If it doesn’t actually heal eco-systems when you do economic development, it will never end poverty” said environmentalist Greg Gerritt. “So if they want to do development in South Providence, talk to the community, make sure it actually makes things cleaner, and then you have a chance to end poverty.”

Linda Perry

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