Public Services

Democracy dies at PVD City Council committee meeting

“I just want to be clear that nobody’s trying to shut out the public from this committee,” said Councilmember Narducci. [Of course, that’s exactly what he did.] It’s important to realize that even before the meeting of the Providence City Council Committee on Public Works (technically the Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning) began, Councilmember Nicholas Narducci (Ward 4)

Rhode Island News: Democracy dies at PVD City Council committee meeting

September 10, 2020, 11:00 am

By Steve Ahlquist

I just want to be clear that nobody’s trying to shut out the public from this committee,” said Councilmember Narducci. [Of course, that’s exactly what he did.]

It’s important to realize that even before the meeting of the Providence City Council Committee on Public Works (technically the Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning) began, Councilmember Nicholas Narducci (Ward 4) was talking about preventing the 45 members of the public who had gone through the trouble of signing up to testify from testifying.

Providence Committee on Public works   Tuesday, September 8, 2020   YouTube

The Committee meeting had one agenda item, to discuss and recommend passage of a resolution “Opposing the Rhode Island Department of Transportation proposed Multi-Hub Bus System.” Near the top of the agenda, written in all caps and bolded, were the words “IN ORDER TO PROVIDE PUBLIC TESTIMONY AT THIS MEETING YOU MUST SIGN UP TO SPEAK AT:”

Three weeks ago, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) presented their plan to break up Kennedy Plaza into three smaller hubs at a Rhode Island Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) board meeting. Kennedy Plaza would effectively be cut in half, and two other hubs, one at the train station and one in the Jewelry District, would be built.

RIDOT, which controls the roads, effectively told RIPTA, which controls the buses, that RIPTA had no say in how this multi-hub plan would go. Further, a representative from the Administration of Governor Gina Raimondo began the lie that voters had approved this plan back in 2014 when they voted Yes on a transportation bond. In reality, voters approved funds to improve public transportation, not dismantle it.

Transportation advocates, neighborhood associations and social advocacy groups immediately decried the plan, at that very RIPTA meeting and at two subsequent public events. The multi-hub plan will force some riders to require a second transfer to catch their next bus. Rather than simply make their way across Kennedy Plaza, they will now have to get from one hub to another. This is especially difficult for the elderly, the disabled, mothers with young children, or simply people who use the bus to get to and from work.

While the plan is opposed by riders and advocacy groups, it is strongly supported by Governor Raimondo, business interests and downtown real estate moguls like former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino.

“Let’s just be very clear,” said Dwayne Keys, who heads the South Providence Neighborhood Association, speaking at a rally to oppose the plan in Kennedy Plaza two weeks ago. “The majority of the riders are black indigenous people of color, low to moderate income and working families … This is not just some simple transit plan. There are underlying reasons for removing those who they do not want in this area. This process and this plan itself is the epitome of oppression, exclusion, elitism, classism and yes, racism.”

Eight Providence City Councilmembers supported the resolution to oppose the multihub plan when it was submitted by Councilmembers Helen Anthony (Ward 2), Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3) and John Goncalves (Ward 1). It was sent to committee for consideration, and was deliberately killed there, with no member of the public allowed to speak.

It is important to understand that this meeting took place via Zoom, not in person as would have happened pre-pandemic. The City Councilmembers present did not have to see the angry and disappointed faces of the members of the public they were excluding. Due to Governor Raimondo’s executive order abridging the Open Meetings Act during the pandemic, it was easy for committeemembers to ignore the people and treat democracy as less than an afterthought.

Instead of letting those waiting to speak testify, Councilmembers Narducci and Michael Correia (Ward 6) worked to continue this meeting to a later date, effectively killing the intended impact of the resolution. As Councilmember Rachel Miller (Ward 13) pointed out, “The council does not have a deciding role here. The only role we can play is to represent our constituents and make sure that they have an opportunity for their voice to be heard. And the best way I think to do that is to let them speak tonight…”

One person who did get to speak to the Committee was Steve Devine, Administrator of RIDOT’s Transit Office. He spoke at length, while the public was not allowed to say anything. He asked the committeemembers to hold off on advancing the resolution until the plan is complete. When asked when the plan would be complete, he didn’t provide any good answers. But under questioning from Committee Chair Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11), Devine admitted:

“The Governor and [RIDOT Director Peter Alviti] are committed to moving forward with a plan utilizing bond funds that were passed in 2014. We are looking to complete the project by 2022… In order to make that date we’d like to present the plan, have a final plan, engage with some engineering firms to begin some conceptual layouts. So in order to stay on that schedule, we’ve got a schedule that gets at least the early engineering phase going this fall…”

Devine further admitted that the first RFP (request for proposal) was going out in late September. An RFP is required so that RIDOT can hire engineering firms.

This information shocked some councilmembers. RIDOT was charging full steam ahead towards executing the plan, even as Devine, representing RIDOT, was asking the City Council to delay the resolution opposing the plan.

Devine was also less than truthful when he claimed that RIDOT was engaging with the public. “Over the last two to three months there’s been considerable outreach to stakeholder groups, as people have mentioned. The outreach hasn’t stopped,” said Devine. “We’re going to continue working at this. We’re going to continue with RIPTA Board meetings for this process and continue listening to comments and concerns from the public.”

Councilmember Anthony pointed out that contrary to Devine’s statements, there had not been a public process. “I wish you could see all the letters that have gone in to the Governor that talk about the lack of process…

“We’re looking at an RFP at the end of September,” continued Anthony. “The fact is, the riders have not been truly engaged. A presentation is not an engagement. It just isn’t… These people have not been heard. They haven’t had a chance to be heard and this plan is way far down the line…”

Devine also repeated the lie that voters had approved a multi-hub plan when they voted for the transportation bond six years ago. “As you may recall,” said Devine, “someone had mentioned the 2014 transit bond – that bond referendum was actually based on the multi-hub system – RIPTA had done a thorough study of a multi-hub system back then. It was what went forward as the basis for the 2014 Question 6, and supported by a coalition called Move Rhode Island Forward which consisted of many of the same stakeholders we’re working with today…”

I reached out to GrowSmart Deputy Director John Flaherty, who led the Yes on 6 campaign in 2014 to ask him to clarify what voters approved in 2014.

“Yes, RIPTA prepared a multi-hub plan that was the basis of the 2014 bond referendum,” said Flaherty. “The big difference is that all routes would have continued to serve Kennedy Plaza with ‘termination’ points at larger hubs at train station and Garrahy. RIDOT has discarded that plan, but claims it’s what they’re implementing.” (See here, pages 6 and 7)

Councilmembers Narducci and Correia seemed to buy into everything Devine said, and quickly moved to cut the public speaking portion of the meeting. Narducci was particularly hypocritical when he claimed that he was doing so in the interest of expanding public input, saying, “I just want to be clear that nobody’s trying to shut out the public from this committee.” [Of course, that’s exactly what he did.] Narducci suggested setting up a special public meeting. He suggested that this present meeting wasn’t open enough. “A lot of my constituents use the bus lines,” continued Narducci. “I want to look out for their best interests.”

Towards the end of the meeting Council Present Sabina Matos (Ward 15) joined, but it was too late, the public had been excluded from speaking by a 4-1 committee vote. Only committeemember Pedro Espinal (Ward 10) voted to allow people to speak. Narducci, Correia, Carmen Castillo (Ward 9) and Chair Harris all voted against the public.

Then, the committee voted to end the meeting, after promising to schedule a public hearing on the resolution some time after September 18th. Of course, by that time, RIDOT’s plan will have had two more weeks to advance, and the public will have had no opportunity to speak on it in the meantime.

Update: Statement from Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris Regarding Last Night’s URRP Committee Meeting

As the Chairwoman of the Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning, I would first like to apologize for the confusion caused by last night’s committee meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the proposed Council resolution opposing the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s plans for a multi-hub bus system in Downtown Providence.

While the committee planned to hear from Rhode Island Department of Transportation representatives, concerned Council members and community members on the proposed multi-hub bus system, miscommunication regarding the nature of this meeting created an issue.

Last night’s meeting was not formally advertised as a public hearing. This means that the details of the meeting and its agenda were not circulated widely enough to ensure that any concerned community member would have the opportunity to share their thoughts with the committee. Moving forward, the URRP Committee will be working with the Clerk’s office to schedule a legitimate public hearing and advertise it as such.

Although there were many concerned community members ready to speak last night, I have no doubt that there are more residents out there who would also like to share their thoughts, and we owe it to them to provide that opportunity. While the Providence City Council has no authority over this matter, as it is a State transit plan, our goal is to facilitate stakeholder discussions and act as a community liaison between transit riders and the Department of Transportation. I look forward to facilitating this important community discussion.

It should be noted that, contrary to Councilmember Harris’ statement, last night’s meting was clearly advertised to allow for public comment.

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