PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Ward 13 has been represented by only two councilors in the last 34 years: Democrats John Lombardi and Bryan Principe.
Now four new Democrats – Cyd McKenna, Rachel Miller, Raymond Berarducci and Leslie Papp – are vying to replace Principe, who announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election to represent the Federal Hill and West End neighborhoods he has served since 2011.
So where do the candidates stand on some of Providence’s key issues? Eyewitness News asked them to answer 10 questions.
1. Why should you be elected to the City Council?
McKenna: I’m running for Council because I’ve worked in City Government for the last 2 years. I know what’s broken, and I know how to fix it. I’m running because I’m a fearless advocate, and I want to make the changes in Ward 13 that residents here are asking for. We need an action plan to deal with the city’s affordable housing crisis, the deficit projections in our school system, and an equitable distribution of basic city services and infrastructure needs across our ward. I’m running because I’m an action oriented problem solver, and want to fight for issues critical to the livelihood of Ward 13 residents.
Miller: For twenty years I’ve led community wide efforts to build broad coalitions that won victories for working people, even when that has meant standing up to political insiders and powerful corporate interests.
I’ve lived in Ward 13 for fourteen years. I love the neighborhood- there are so many things that we are doing right. Ward 13 is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and income diverse. With skyrocketing rents, it’s going to be a challenge to keep it that way. We need people at every level of government who know how to fight alongside the communities they represent, to demand investments in our neighborhoods, to collaborate with other elected officials at the state and city level, and to ensure access to local government for everyone, not just well-connected insiders.
I am an experienced community organizer who knows how to fight, knows what’s at stake for our neighborhoods, and knows how to build broad coalitions to solve big problems. I have a track record of building community in Providence, from broad campaigns for fair wages for immigrants and low-wage workers to investing my time and skills in community projects to expand access to healthy and affordable food in our neighborhoods.
I want to put my experience to work for all of the residents of Ward 13, to serve our whole community, and to put my values in motion for a Ward 13 where everyone can thrive.
Berarducci: It is my belief that every person has a responsibility to participate in the process of selecting our representatives, whether it’s running for elected office, donating to or volunteering for your favorite candidate or, most importantly, showing up to vote. I was a registered voter as soon as I was old enough and the only time I missed voting was when I was overseas in a conflict area and could not get a ballot so, I do feel it’s important to show up to vote. After high school and a little college, I joined the United States Marine Corps where my leadership skills were developed. I have lived all over Asia, lead and mentored many young Marines and have received commendations for my leadership skills. I have helped to literally build communities in and out of the United States using my expertise as a Marine Corps Engineer. My return home to the 13th Ward made it clear to me that leadership is exactly what we lack, the neighborhood has taken a downward path with regard to the neglect that we see in overgrowth of shrubbery to the point it’s difficult to walk safely, the cracked sidewalks and abandoned houses that invite crime and the crime itself, as windows constantly being broken into, homes being broken into, we need more police presence from midnight to 5 am. We need to work together as a community to fix what contributes to the basic quality of life here in the 13th. We need a strong voice to advocate for a cleaner, safer place to live and I know that I can be that voice.
Papp: I have been working in our Providence community for 35 years, and have lived in my home for 25 years. I have worked and volunteered in our schools, community groups, in the streets, with the Institute for Nonviolence, the police department, churches, and our prison system. I have helped create affordable housing with Allen AME Church being the first faith based non-profit to work with RI Housing. When Sgt Cornell Young Jr. was killed, I was there to try and move our city to better train our officers and became a trainer of new recruits for eight years at the police academy and helped move the city to create a citizens review. I helped create the Summer Youth Employment Program at South Providence Development Corp, to push our hospitals to hire from our community. I am also a small business owner for 22 years and I know the effort it takes to keep a business going. I believe I have worked with many aspects of the community, the city and the state, and my experiences and my ability to work with a wide diverse group of people and not back down when taking on problems will allow me to impact our ward and utilize my training in Nonviolence to bring all parties to the table to solve our problems. I have had our community at my heart for 35 years, and I won’t stop now
2. What is one City Council committee you’d like to sit on and why?
Miller: I look forward to the opportunity to serve on the Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning (URRP). At URRP there is tremendous opportunity to put policy in action for the greatest neighborhood impact and to put public dollars to work for our neighborhoods. We have to make sure that every dollar spent on development is building resource in our neighborhoods, not lining the pockets of large corporations and well-connected insiders.
We can implement policy and development ideas that create quality jobs for Providence residents, support projects from and for our community of neighbors, and ensure that every neighborhood has access to city services and the resources to thrive, regardless of the wealth or special interests represented on a given block. At URRP we can create a development framework that serves as a backbone for our city, that takes care of trash, of parks, and improves our quality of life, and that builds partnerships with community-based organizations serving the best interests of our residents.
Berarducci: I would like to sit on the committee for Public Works. Each night, as you can see from my facebook posts, I walk door to door and the sentiment is the same with everyone, people are saying the 13th Ward has been neglected, uncared for and I would like a chance to change that by working closely with the Department of Public Works and the Mayor’s office. Neighbors tell me they feel their voices are not heard, many people say that no one returns their calls or addresses their complaints and I would like the opportunity to put my leadership skills to work to change that. The blight clearly lowers the moral and quality of life for my friends and neighbors and it seems unnecessary and an easy fix. I have been a very successful Marine working to build communities overseas for four years and was contemplating reenlisting but I felt my community needed me more so I am running for city council to help address the quality of life issues that are before us.
Papp: Special Committee on Education. The education system is the reason I first ran in 2006, when a family we knew who was in public housing had a daughter who excelled in school, but there was no room for her at Nathaniel Greene Middle School’s Advanced Program even though she passed the test. At the time I also volunteered at the RI Training School, and if you committed a crime they would find room at $100K/year, but no room for our children who excel which could help move families out of poverty. In 2015-2016 I taught as a substitute and a long term substitute at Del Sesto Middle School in the bi-lingual program, and I still see the same situation, children who are at level or above placed in classrooms with other children at all levels. We need to allow our children who are at level in their subjects to be able to exceed and can be placed in larger class sizes, then we can have smaller class sizes for those that need extra care. I am also a big proponent of having all of our students job/college ready when they graduate, this means having vocational training starting in the middle schools, not just trades, but technology and arts as well. I also propose to have job readiness and financial literacy incorporated within our existing classes and working with our business community to help achieve those goals so we can plan for the jobs that are available now and in the future.
McKenna: All city council committees are important; each plays an integral role in the operation and management of our city. The Finance Committee however is where the rubber hits the road. As the former Chief of Staff to the City Council, I’ve sat in on 2 years worth of Finance Committee meetings, and worked closely with its members on critical issues like contract negotiations and passing the city budget. I understand that the city is on a tight budget and we are constantly asked to do more with less; the Finance Committee is the place to make smart allocations in the budget to achieve maximum impact. I’ve learned that even smaller dollar amounts, when wisely allocated can make a tangible difference in outcomes, and by listening closely to what residents are asking for and what departments need to make it happen, we can make meaningful changes that positively impact people’s lives.
3. Do you think Providence should have at-large City Council seats?
Berarducci: No, the city council should look for an approach to being able to tackle the current tasks that each council person is currently responsible for.
Papp: With the Providence population approximately at 180,000, and our wards each have a flavor to them, I think the current system should stay as is. The reason I believe this is that each councilor should have the city at-large be present in their minds and decisions while they work for their ward. Our city is of a size where we are in a way at-large councilors. I have seen council persons at events outside their ward, which I believe is good. While we want to uplift our wards, we should be mindful that we want our whole city lifted up for the better, and if our ward is improved, we improve the whole city. I don’t believe we need at-large City Council seats.
McKenna: Ward by ward representation on the council is extremely important to ensure that each area of the city has a voice and an advocate in city government. I believe that at-large council seats would be a value-add to this structure, because it’s important that the Council be accountable to the entire city to ensure those voices are threaded together in the legislative arm of city government. The implementation of these seats would have to be carefully crafted however, to not concentrate political power in one area of the city while disenfranchising the rest, so this would need to a deliberate and transparent process to ensure equity and fair representation.
Miller: While the idea of having legislators, who look at the big, city-wide picture, is attractive, the reality is that those positions tend to cancel out the voices and concerns of voters who already have low representation in elected office, especially people of color and low income voters, as well as other groups of residents with specific, very local concerns.
In the 2000s, cities across the country moved to eliminate at-large representation for this very reason. In a 2013 dissenting opinion from the bench, Justice Ginsberg called at-large representation systems a “second generation method” of reducing the political power of communities of color, a go-around used by some cities and towns to circumvent the impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At-large representation would be step backwards for Providence.
4. A developer has proposed building a 46-story tower along Dyer Street on the former I-195 land. Would you support a zoning change that would allow that project or a similar one to move forward?
Papp: We need development to occur in Providence to help build our economy, and I believe there is a way to accomplish this without taking away the character of the city. The I-195 land should be used exclusively for development that would be taxed at fair market value, even if a non-profit wants to develop there. We can no longer allow over 42% of our city to go without paying their fair share of taxes that straps our home owners, renters and businesses. Development should occur but I would want property that fits the character and style of our city. I would not rule out zoning changes that would allow development outside the current rules, but with strict review of design and usage. I would not give a carte blanche agreement to a zoning change either, but only with respect to our city, our history and our people.
McKenna: I oppose project-based zoning changes of this magnitude because it opens the floodgates to future requests that contradict the point of zoning to begin with. Developments that receive incentives from the city should include an affordable housing component as a rule, and look forward to introducing an ordinance to that effect when elected Councilwoman. Union labor construction jobs are a critical piece of the city’s economy, and I support major construction projects that create such jobs. I don’t think that zoning laws and construction jobs are mutually exclusive though; I look forward to sitting down with the developers of this project and putting together a packages that moves this project forward in an appropriate location that includes allocations for affordable units. In my council race, I am running to be the Ward’s Advocate in Chief. I’ve been talking to neighbors across my Ward since June, and I hear overwhelming opposition to this project as it’s currently proposed. This race is about what the people in my ward value and ask for, and my role is to amplify their concerns on the City Council. By opposing this project for the reasons stated, I’m doing exactly that, and I welcome an ongoing dialogue to figure out how to make the project more workable for the City of Providence.
Miller: As it currently stands, the Hope Tower project presents both challenges and opportunities. If I were on the Council now, to gain my support, I would negotiate to bring the proposal in closer alignment with current zoning and for proposed zoning variances to be linked with contributions to an affordable housing fund for Providence.
Unlike many downtown development projects that already receive subsidies, the developer of the Hope Point Tower has pledged to use local hiring and local contractors who have apprenticeship programs, meaning the jobs that might be created here would be high quality jobs for Providence residents.
I would hold all proposed subsidy and zoning variance requests to standards of community input and commitments to affordable housing, to quality jobs, and to community benefits proportional to the scale of the subsidy or relief.
Berarducci: Not in the proposed location however, Providence needs growth to thrive. Making Providence friendly for developers and businesses is the only way to approach this issue. We need new projects and businesses to offset the property tax burden of local residents and businesses already here. We have plenty of opportunity here, we just need to act on it. Let us not end the project just because of one idea, we have plenty of opportunity in Providence for this project let’s be business friendly and not drive developers out as these projects will provide an expanded tax base and jobs for our community.
5. Providence’s unfunded pension liability is approaching $1 billion and the system was only 25% funded as of June 30, 2017. What steps would you support for stabilizing the pension system?
McKenna: The pension liability issue is omnipresent, and to address it, we must continue to collectively work toward pension reform. We must look for opportunities to restructure the system at every pass to put it on a sustainable trajectory, and continue to negotiate with existing and future employees to reach that goal.
Miller: First and foremost, we need to take a hard look at the numbers and unravel the idea of a crisis from the data. The former mayor inherited a major fiscal crisis and put in motion reforms to the pension system that put us on a path to stability, the result of a lot of work and negotiations from all parties. I don’t know the precise steps forward for our current situation, but I do know that we need to fight for a fair solution for city workers that is also a sound pathway forward for the city. I look forward to an opportunity to get a full look at the numbers that are informing the current dialogue. I will work with other elected officials, with staff in City Hall, and with municipal workers on ideas to shore up our pension system and to promote ideas that promise to both support city residents and generate revenue for the City of Providence.
Berarducci: The pension situation has been growing for decades not only in our small community but throughout the entire United States and the only way out is to grow out of it by attracting businesses and labor here and to make better contracts going forward, we must keep our obligations to those already nearing retirement.
Papp: I would spread the tax burden to the large non-profits and tax all property that consists of parking, food services, gift and book stores and dormitories at fair market value. I would also not allow the large non-profits to expand further in the city without having to pay taxes like any other business. The city needs to examine the amount we pay for current jobs based on the private and use those savings to pay the unfunded liability. Address the current contracts on how pensions are calculated and should mirror private businesses and social security. Calculate on their average income over 6 – 8 years not the last 4. The pension programs that are already in force need examined. Allowing COLAs to grow must not be allowed to be automatic and that there may be years where there is not a COLA given. The year to collect pensions should mirror what occurs in the private sector for 401Ks and Social Security, you should not be allowed to collect a pension until you are the age of 65. We are all on a fixed income, and the retirees need to realize that our current population cannot continue to pay pensions that rival or go beyond the income they earned or what the former position’s income is at currently. Early retirement should be scaled back, and benefits will need to be reduced. We can no longer rely on taxes for past administration’s mistakes that continue to hurt Providence.
6. Mayor Elorza has been advocating for the state to approve legislation that would allow Providence to generate more revenue from the city’s water supply. Would you support a sale or lease deal for the water system?
Miller: The proposed state enabling legislation does not protect our water and it does not protect Providence residents. It does not protect vital watershed land from development and it removes public oversight from future rate increases. In a small state like Rhode Island, regionalization of services can make sense, but when it comes to water, we need to take a holistic approach. We should not allow decisions about our water to be made without including input from the Rhode Island Water Board and we should not make short term decisions with harmful unforeseen consequences. Water is life. In 2018, as we are living with the effects of climate change, water is our most precious resource. In Flint, MI, the privatization of water led down a path that has caused irreparable harm. To the extent that “monetization” is simply being used as a placeholder for “privatization,” this proposal is a road we cannot take.
Berarducci: Water is our lifeline and it would be my thought to instead of selling the WSB and run the risk of water becoming too expensive for our residents and could also contribute to the already high cost of renting or owning a home, I would rather advocate for federal funds for a major construction project initiated to rebuild the sewer and water lines that we know are old and decaying making our drinking water not as clean as it should be. This way we would create good jobs which would bring in more tax revenue to the city and state and ensure healthy drinking water for everyone.
Papp: I would not be in favor of selling off city assets to try and plug the hole in the damn of the underfunded pension. Leasing could be an option depending on the length of term and conditions. City assets are too valuable to sell off for a one time fix and could set a dangerous precedence for future assets. We need to utilize our assets to create income, and once sold, you cannot get them back. I believe there are other alternatives to try and fix our budget then sell off assets.
McKenna: I can see how the idea of selling an asset for a one time cash infusion to our pension system would be attractive, but without real pension reform, it’s selling one of the City’s last appreciating assets without a plan to not repeat past mistakes. Selling Providence Water is a major and irreversible decision, and I don’t see that the outcome is worth the risk at this time. I do think that pension reform is achievable through a combination of different mechanisms including possible bonds, but again this would have to be part of a much larger reform package that I look forward to working on when elected to the Council.
7. Providence’s teachers have been working without a contract since Aug. 31, 2017. Mayor Elorza has said he wants the next agreement to be “transformational.” What does a transformational contract mean to you?
Berarducci: I am a product of both private and public schools and I feel that would be transformational would be a multi year contract with a competitive wage and supplies such as books and science and computer labs to support the work teachers do. There is no commodity as valuable as our residents and our children as they truly are the future and we can only get out what we put in. In addition I would like to initiate a community experience with teaching that would allow the community to participate by have local business leaders, civic leaders and entrepreneurs come into the schools and share their expertise in exchange for any CEU’s or even a tax incentive, we have to think out of the box.
Papp: Transformational to me would mean that it benefits our students. Yes we have a lot of great teachers in our system, but what about the not so great ones. Transformational would be a collaborative contract where the union would help remove teachers who don’t teach or bide their time until retirement. It would set standards of teaching, not just how it would monetarily benefit teachers, but that it would allow ideas that many teachers have in ways of improving the education of our students, common sense ideas that I heard from teachers while working as a long term substitute teacher. Transformational would not be an us versus them, but it would be “we can do this”, we can benefit our great teachers, rid the schools of bad teachers, and make the education of our students such a priority and success that the 76% of teachers that don’t live in the city because they don’t want their children in Providence schools, would actually want their children to come to Providence.
McKenna: I live across the street from West Broadway Middle School, and every day I see teachers doing transformational work with their students that goes well beyond the scope of their daily duties. To me, a transformational contract is one that recognizes exceptional work, gives teachers the support they need to excel at their jobs, includes pension reform and most importantly, is the result of a sincere and meaningful dialogue between the Mayor and the teachers about what a transformational contract really is.
Miller: We do need transformational change in the school department, and that begins with all parties coming to the table to negotiate a fair contract. As a City Councilor I would advocate for a public education system in which teachers are compensated fairly, have the books and supplies they need for their classrooms, access to professional development, reliable leadership, manageable class sizes, and beautiful, healthy, and safe buildings in which to work. Before she retired, my mother was a teacher, and my sister is a teacher in Massachusetts. I know first-hand the dedication teachers have to their students, from long hours spent planning new ways to engage their students in learning to out-of-pocket expenses for basic school supplies for their students. Providence is also lucky to have youth organizations that are developing powerful youth leaders, creating space for youth leaders to be involved in conversations about their schools.
8. The majority of major development projects in Providence in recent years have received a tax-stabilization agreement from the city. Mayor Elorza and Council President Salvatore are both advocating for a more standardized TSA process rather having one-off agreements that vary depending on the project. How should the city handle TSAs in the future?
Papp: I agree with a standard TSA. The TSA though, should not be allowed to be renewed as has happened in that past. Any project applying for a TSA must have reserves that prove they can stay in business after the TSA expires. The other component is any project must have a compliance program that requires a percentage of Providence residents be employed across all economic levels, not just low income or entry level positions. The First Source office needs to work harder on this. If they fall below that threshold, then the TSA should be adjusted. We cannot give away taxes on an already over taxed city, and not gain any benefit for our residents. For housing projects, any affordable housing that is tied to that project should be using the per capita income of the city not the state. By having a standard TSA will make it easier for businesses to calculate what to expect, and at the same time stop any sweet heart insider deals that give advantage to those who make deals at the expense of city residents.
McKenna: Tax Stabilization Agreements are an effective tool to incentivize development in Providence. The TSA process should be standardized, transparent, and be tethered to clear and enforceable benefits to the city through community benefit agreements and inclusionary zoning requirements. TSA’s shouldn’t filled with unpredictable obstacles, but there is value in having them vetted by the Council to ensure the project has a clear need for one, and the public has the opportunity to comment on and these proposals through the public hearing process. Further, the city must do better at monitoring compliance with TSA’s and that process needs to be completely overhauled and standardized to better enforce the terms of TSA’s including use of First Source, apprenticeship training, minority contracting, fair pay and treatment of subcontractors, and in the future, inclusionary zoning and a more clear and predictable use of community benefit agreements. Providence is a wonderful city to launch a development in, but if the city is going to be an investor in that development, city residents must see a tangible return on their investment in ways that positively impact their lives.
Miller: Tax stabilization agreements can and should be powerful tools for ensuring that when public money is supporting private development, Providence residents are benefiting in the way of living wage jobs, contractors that follow the law, apprenticeship programs, and, benefits as negotiated with the impacted community that can include affordable housing, green spaces, and remediation of toxic sites. Each development is different as are the needs of the neighborhoods directly impacted. If there’s room to negotiate community benefits inside a standardized TSA that includes the above items, then absolutely there’s an opportunity here.
When I served as the executive director of RI Jobs with Justice, a statewide economic justice nonprofit, I fought for community benefits in TSAs, including the implementation of First Source. First Source is a city law that says that the city must maintain a list of unemployed Providence residents who want to be considered for work, and that list should be the “first source” for hiring on projects that receive public subsidy. At the time, that law was being ignored.
Together, with community organizations and Providence City Council members, we took the then Mayor and City to Superior Court and won implementation of our local hiring law. Although First Source has been put to really good use to expand access to union apprenticeships in Providence’s communities of color and in our low-income communities, the city is still breaking its own law. On the City Council, I will fight for full compliance with First Source.
Berarducci: In order for Providence to grow and to be competitive we need TSA’s because they are in other communities and we need to be competitive to attract new businesses.
9. What is one piece of legislation you would like to see the General Assembly approve to help Providence?
McKenna: I would like to see the General Assembly increase funding for our city schools.
Miller: The number one thing the General Assembly can do for Providence, for the residents of Ward 13, and for the state, is to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Rhode Island can join the growing ranks of states, cities, and towns, who recognize that real wages for low and middle-income earners haven’t risen in decades, while both the cost of living and CEO compensation has skyrocketed.
But why limit ourselves to just one? As a City Councilor, I will put my experience as a community leader and organizer to work to build coalition with the Providence delegation at the State House in support of legislation that would strengthen our city. We should fix the school funding formula so that English language learners and special needs students are factored in. Providence has a disproportionate number of students with special needs; that’s part of the strength and diversity of our city. But the current school funding formula does not take these needs into account. The GA should revisit the tax cut granted to the wealthiest Rhode Islanders, as the promised consequent boost to our tax base never materialized. Instead, the state has cut funding to cities and towns, which passed those cuts to residents in the form of regressive taxation. RI can also put some teeth into the 10% affordable housing mandate for cities and towns and we can invest in low-income housing at the state level, funding projects that are truly affordable for residents.
Berarducci: The house bill H7725 is one that I would like to see the General Assembly approve, the bill is titled “Emergency Commitment for Drug Intoxication”. With the growing opioid crisis, giving doctors the ability to have a patient exhibiting drug related symptoms admitted to a treatment facility for 72 hours for detoxification would play a crucial role in the fight against drugs abuse. Drug addiction starts in a many number of places, but ends at the home front. Leaving mother and fathers, as well as brothers and sisters to mourn the death of a loved one. This bill would give hope to families that are struggling to help their loved ones.
Papp: If teachers can live in any community because Providence receives state funds, then any of our students should be able to attend any school system in the state that receives state funds. We should not allow our state system to be employee oriented, the employees serve the people, all the people, and we, the majority, should be served first, particularly our children. If the law of not requiring residency applies to teachers, then residency should not apply to our most vulnerable, our children!
10. Name one thing Mayor Elorza has gotten right and one thing he’s gotten wrong since he became mayor in 2015.
Miller: Mayor Elorza has encouraged a staff at City Hall who are connected to our neighborhoods, to our arts and music scene, and who are bringing exciting ideas to fruition in the form of music and culture festivals like PVD fest, ideas on how to make Providence more bike and pedestrian friendly, and how to maximize our green spaces.
However, the Mayor has also left constituents out of vital decisions and taken years to fulfill campaign pledges. This can be seen in the proposal to move Kennedy Plaza, and in the campaign to pass comprehensive anti-racial profiling legislation. After four years of community pressure from neighborhoods, the Mayor came to the table on the Community Safety Act, something he had pledged to do before he was elected.
Berarducci: What I feel he has overlooked is the neglect of the streets of the community, there is too much blight leaving the community feeling neglected and too much crime, we need safe clean communities from which to thrive.
Papp: The mayor has not raised the property tax. This is something he has gotten right, even though we see major hurdles in our budgets. This will be crucial as the new reevaluations come out. As the economy begins to rebound, Providence still has one of the largest unemployment rates in the state, and not putting more undue burden on the residence helps stabilize our neighborhoods, for both owners and renters.
What the mayor has not gotten right is continuing to enforce the TSA requirements for those who have received this benefit. The city fails to implement the city ordinances that are required for the TSAs. Currently the city requires developers to hire MBEs/WBEs at a level of 20%, and many developers are out of compliance in this regard and I feel that the mayor has been too silent on this issue as well as our First Source ordinances. I would want the mayor to rally around Providence First when it comes to hiring and compliance for our residents, we need to put our people first.
McKenna: Mayor Elorza has made meaningful investments in parks and out of school programming for the city’s children; a meaningful investment in our future and I applaud his efforts here. In my ward, I think putting parking meters on Federal Hill was a major misstep. It doesn’t work, but I believe the Mayor is open minded enough to revisit that issue, and look forward to working with him on that and on significant infrastructure improvements in the area once elected.