Providence City Council returns to chamber for first time since pandemic

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence City Council made a celebratory return to its chambers on Thursday, marking the first time the full body has met in person since March 5, 2020.

The meeting was also Council President John Igliozzi’s first time presiding over the council from the podium, after taking over as president during the pandemic when Sabina Matos left to become lieutenant governor.

“This a great day,” Igliozzi said in a speech at the start of the meeting. “We didn’t think we’d ever come back, but we are.”

There was no significant business on the agenda, with the council opting to use their first in-person meeting to give out three municipal medals of bravery and celebrate the Fourth of July. The chamber was decorated with American flags, and the 14 councilors marched in to the sound of bagpipes, led by the Providence Police Color Guard.

A slew of dignitaries were in attendance including Gov. Dan McKee, Mayor Jorge Elorza, former Mayor Joe Paolino and Judge Frank Caprio.

“Man, does it feel good to be here in person once again,” Elorza said.

McKee also made brief remarks, congratulating the council on returning in person and pledging to help Providence after the pandemic.

“The community’s business needs to continue,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can for the economy to recover.”

The council awarded three medals of bravery; two were for David Doti and Gary Kraus, employees of the Providence Parks Department who ran into a burning building last month to save a family.

Peter Ricci, 101, shakes hands with Councilman Helen Anthony as he’s awarded a medal of bravery from the Providence City Council.

Elorza said Doti has previously run into a burning building on another occasion years ago, prompting the city to name an award the “David Doti Prize.”

Another medal was awarded to Peter Ricci, a 101-year-old World War II veteran from Silver Lake who was honored for his service in the U.S. Navy.

Amid the pomp and circumstance, three councilors stood to speak out about a recent incident on Sayles Street where families claim children were pepper-sprayed and beaten by Providence Police.

The top leaders of the police department — Col. Hugh Clements, Commander Thomas Verdi and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré — looked on as the councilors spoke. They were in the chamber to celebrate the retirement of two police majors, Michael Correia and Robert Lepre.

“I’m asking all of us … that we keep in mind that just two days ago the Providence Police assaulted and pepper-sprayed a child as young as one year old,” Councilor Rachel Miller said. “I heard from the family, I saw the pain and the terror on their faces.”

Councilors Nirva LaFortune and Kat Kerwin also stood to address the incident. LaFortune spoke directly to Clements and Paré, saying she respects them but also hopes there will be accountability.

Paré said after the meeting that body camera footage of the incident is expected to be released Thursday night, and said an internal review is underway. Clements added that police had responded to the Sayles Street address 42 times in the past year-and-a-half for various disturbances.

“I think we should gather all the facts before we make any assertion about what happened or didn’t happen,” Clements said. He confirmed that officers deployed pepper spray, including at juveniles who were present at what he described as “a feud between two families that escalated.”

The council meeting took place on the first day of the new 2021-22 fiscal year, though a new city budget has not yet been approved. The Council Finance Committee has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday to potentially amend Elorza’s $540 million budget proposal and vote it out of committee.

Dozens of people were present in the chamber, though the general public was “strongly encouraged” to watch the live stream of the meeting on Zoom or YouTube.

The City Council had not live-streamed its meetings prior to the pandemic, but was in the process of making technology upgrades to do so before COVID caused the meetings to start being held on Zoom.

Thursday’s meeting was the first use of the new technology, which will allow all full council meetings to be streamed moving forward.

Spokesperson Abigail Appel said the equipment was installed in March 2020, around the same time the council started meeting remotely.

“The design of the livestreaming system included three cameras, switchboard, eight speakers, 17 wireless gooseneck mics, two handheld wireless mics, and a receiver,” Appel said in an email. “Upon returning to in-person working hours it was decided to integrate the existing livestreaming system and equipment with Zoom as that had become the platform used throughout the pandemic.”

Appel did not immediately provide the total cost of the new system, but documents filed with the Board of Contract and Supply say the company PMA Industries was paid $67,956 to outfit the council chamber.

While the full council will be meeting in person from now on, committee meetings are expected to continue being held remotely for the time being. The governor’s most recent executive order allowing public bodies to meet remotely expires on July 23.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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