“Even if there’s no apparent wrongdoing of any sort, it just looks bad. And that makes people suspicious. It makes me suspicious of what’s going on…“
The meeting of the East Providence City Council on Tuesday was contentious, but it was also plagued by technical problems. The council decided to hold a hybrid meeting, giving people the option to be at the Edward R Martin Middle School in person, and/or follow along and participate online via Zoom. As explained by East Providence City Solicitor (and former state representative) Michael Marcello, having an online presence for an in person meeting is required under Governor Gina Raimondo‘s executive order as pertains to the Open Meetings Act during the pandemic. Because the participation via Zoom never quite worked, it was decided to continue the meeting to August 26 at 6pm, which will be entirely a Zoom meeting.
The meeting was held to hear from Marshall Development and their plans to develop the Metacomet Golf Course into some kind of housing and shopping complex. Members of the East Providence community have formed a group, Keep Metacomet Green, to oppose the plan.
It became apparent, even before the meeting started, that Marshall Development was going to receive special treatment. As the public waited outside the school for the city council to open the school, executives, lawyers and lobbyists working for Marshall Development cut to the front of the line and were allowed to enter early. After the school cafeteria filled up, some East Providence residents who wanted to attend the meeting were turned away at the door to prevent overcrowding.
During the city council meeting, Marshall Development representatives were allowed to speak first and they were allowed to speak last. The meeting lasted for nearly four hours. Residents of East Providence were each allowed three minutes to address their city council. Marshall representatives were given unlimited time.
City Council President Robert Britto planned to alternate between those in favor of the project, those opposed to the project, and those calling in on Zoom. But there were only about five residents who spoke in favor of the project, and the technology for people calling in never quite worked well. Those few who did manage to testify via Zoom were all opposed to the project, as were the vast majority of community members who testified in person.
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Senator William Conley Jr (Democrat, District 18), who represents East Providence residents in the Rhode Island State Senate, was representing Marshall Development during the committee meeting. Also representing Marshall Development was State Representative Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick), who serves as the House Majority Leader. Also present at the meeting, for reasons I am not sure of, was Representative James McLaughlin (Democrat, District 57, Central Falls).
Senator Conley made it clear that he was not in attendance as a State Senator, but as a member of the team assembled by the Marshall family. What Conley asked for, on behalf of his clients, is for the City Council to approve a change to the city’s comprehensive plan and to approve a change to the zoning for the Metacomet Gold Course land to allow the development of the project. Without these changes, the project cannot go forward.
The day before the City Council meeting Marshall Development announced that they would be preserving 71 of the 138 acres under consideration as green space and open space. It was also revealed that at least some, if not most of that green and open space was underwater and in a flood zone.
“We all recognize that that open space that everyone is keenly aware of, has been closed space for all of us,” said Conley, referring to the fact that the Metacomet Golf Course is private property. “Time to change that,” continued Conley. Conley downplayed the importance of the zoning change, pointing out that after the change is made, there are still state agencies that will have to review and sign off on the plan. Conley failed to point out that many of these agencies are rubber stamps, with none of the democratic oversight that voters can bring to their elected officials on the city council and state senate.
After Conley spoke, Leann Marshall of Marshall Development took the microphone. She worked to sell the community on her commitment to the project. But the public was growing anxious. They wanted to speak to their concerns, not listen to what one resident described as an “infomercial.” The next speaker was also from Marchall, and the one after that as well, but the community pushed back, and insisted on being heard.
The first public speaker was opposed to the project:
“Green space should be preserved, not destroyed,” said Nina. “Especially in communities with limited access to green space.”
The next speaker was in favor:
“I don’t know a lot about what’s going on, but I do know about Marshall,” said Karl Sherry who spoke in favor of the project. That Marshall has been responsive to the community’s concerns and is committing to 71 acres of green space “does not surprise me,” continued Sherry. “That is absolutely unheard of.”
East Providence resident Catherine Vieira-Baker felt that William Conley, serving as a state senator and the lawyer for Marshall Development was a conflict of interest. “Even if there’s no apparent wrongdoing of any sort, it just looks bad. And that makes people suspicious. It makes me suspicious of what’s going on,” said Vieira-Baker, to applause.
“We are opposed to the wanton destruction of the whole Metacomet Golf Course for the sake of building an unnecessary concrete jungle,” said Candy Seel, speaking on behalf of the 2200 members of Keep Metacomet Green.
Seel questioned the process that allowed the Metacomet Golf Course to become an “opportunity zone,” a designation for low-income and distressed zip codes to encourage investment through tax breaks. Senator Conley and Representative Shekarchi personally championed this area’s inclusion as an opportunity zone. These opportunity zones, which provide substantial tax credits to developers, were established by President Donald Trump as part of his massive tax cuts for the rich, and embraced by Governor Gina Raimondo locally.
“Remarkably, this tract is the only designated opportunity zone in east providence,” noted Seel. The income level of the zip code is moderate, and the community is neither distressed nor underserved, said Seel. “How did this come about?” asked Seel, before answering that Conley and Shekarchi, “pushed this legislation through the State House.
“These two individuals are part of Marshall’s legal team, and Marshall will benefit enormously from their legislation,” noted Seel.
“I think one of the reasons that I expect the City Council to vote against rezoning is because you’ve proven that you listen to your constituents,” said Cynthia Mendes, who is challenging Conley in the Senate District 18 Democratic Primary. “One of the reasons that I have a chance in this [Senate] race, is that often doesn’t happen.
“We have lived in a state, too long, where people [in office] have been beholden to corporations and big money and not listening to their constituents… It is wise to listen to your constituents.”
Calico, nine-years old, is against the project:
Marshall Development “is represented by several lawyers, one of which is our own state senator, William Conley” said Steven Shuman. “For this corporation to retain our state senator as their counsel, and for Senator Conley to accept their case, smacks of impropriety. Such actions promote conspiracy rather than transparency. If the good Senator cannot see this, then he should temper his resignation immediately. In fact, let me the first one to formally call for it – for serving his own interests, and not that of his constituents.”
“Who on [the city council] has a vested interest, either financial or otherwise, currently for this development of planned in the future of this development?” asked East Providence resident Lauren Leonard. “We the people have a right, and a will, to vote for who we believe in and if you don’t make the right decision, we’re going to vote you out. And as far as I am concerned, Mr Conley – I used to be an advocate. You will no longer get my vote.”
“When that golf course was being considered as a nominee for one of Rhode Island’s 25 opportunity zones, none of the neighbors or citizens or residents here were notified of that. We didn’t know what was going on, I guess, until June of this year. That’s highly suspicious.
“How was it ever nominated, Mr Conley, without environmental studies and other studies? Why was it ever considered? It’s the most improbable [lace anybody would think of…”
This speaker was very much in support of the project:
If the city council approves the zoning changes and change to the comprehensive plan requested by Marshall Development, approval of the plan will fall to the city’s Waterfront Commission. The Waterfront Commission is not elected.
“The city council gives up control,” notes Anthony. “Mr Conley has a relative on the Waterfront Commission [Timothy Conley]. Members of the Waterfront Commission have been promoting, on social media, this project, and they don’t even have it in their hands yet.”
After the last public speaker finished, City Council President Robert Britto did something UpriseRI has never seen before. He called out specific residents, by name in an open forum, for comments they made on social media. Normally, a councilmember might address such comments in general, by reading a statement. It was very unusual, and possibly a little intimidating.
“You were told about a 3500 person petition. We requested it, we were denied it,” said Zach Darrow, one of the many, many lawyers employed by Marshall Development. Darrow had begun by saying he was there to answer questions raised during public comment, but spent much of his time attempting to undermine the legitimacy of Keep Metacomet Green and others opposed to the project. When members of the public attempted to correct Darrow, he said, “Excuse me, this is my time, thank you.”
“We checked public comments multiple times,” continued Darrow. “We never had a hit above 50% East Providence residents. We also checked the Keep Metacomet Green Facebook page. We could not identify anywhere near 35%. But I welcome the opportunity to be countered and told the trutch, I just want to council to know how many East Providence residents, all sections of East Providence, are on that.
“As far as the comments about Mr Conley cooperating with my client, I want to address that,” continued Darrow, attempting to repair Conley’s reputation, which had taken a few hits over the course of the evening. “I introduced my clients to Mr Conley six, seven months ago. He definitely never touched any legislative activity in ’17, ’18, ’19… There’s been no cooperation. There’s been no collaborating. There’s been no conspiracy.”
Conley then presented his legal case for approving the changes to zoning and the comprehensive plan.
Councilmember Ricardo Mourato objected to Conley:
The last word was given to Marshall Development: