PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A virtual public hearing on the Providence city budget devolved into chaos Tuesday night after multiple people called upon to testify began spewing racist, homophobic and other offensive language in the Zoom call.
The hearing, which was advertised in advance as the opportunity for the public to testify on the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, abruptly ended after Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi said no more hands were raised, though it appeared the “raise hand” tool had been disabled in the Zoom webinar.
Igliozzi had declined fellow councilors’ calls to shut down the meeting earlier amid the racist taunts, insisting the council needed to get through the required public hearing in order to move forward with the budget process. He said the committee had been aiming on Tuesday night to pass just the tax levy, which is a separate ordinance from the actual spending plan, in order to get tax bills out while the city is experiencing a cash flow crunch.
Council President Sabina Matos pledged to reschedule the hearing so the public could weigh in on the budget.
“In an effort to ensure transparency and accessible government, a few individuals took advantage of the anonymity of remote participation and used it as an opportunity to spew hatred,” Matos said in a statement. “Please know that you have our deepest apologies for the racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic language that was used by these callers.”
The problems with the hearing started from the very beginning, when the clerk had to change to a different hosting account because too many people had joined the Zoom scheduled for 5:30 p.m., and a new meeting ID was publicized. (City Clerk Shawn Selleck later said around 300 people joined the meeting.)
Members of the public were unable to turn their cameras on, and Igliozzi said he would call on the people with their hands raised — a virtual tool in the Zoom meeting — to testify by audio for three minutes each.
After testimony from Chief Financial Officer Larry Mancini, the first member of the public to testify immediately started using racist language, declaring “I really hate [expletive],” using a deeply offensive slur.
The person was muted by the clerk, but the second person called to testify also started swearing. A third person suggested spending the city budget on prostitutes and cocaine. Several people started off their testimony appearing to talk about the budget, only to suddenly switch to racist, homophobic and sexist slurs.
Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune asked Igliozzi to shut the hearing down, arguing the council was providing a platform for racism.
“I think that we’ve had enough,” LaFortune said. “With everything that’s been happening within our nation and throughout our communities, this is an awful time to have to deal with this.”
But Igliozzi powered through, instructing the clerk to mute anyone who used inappropriate language.
“It’s sad that instead of having constructive conversation or ideas for our proposed budget, folks are choosing to use this as a forum for hate speech,” Igliozzi said.
The next person he called on also made inappropriate comments.
Councilman David Salvatore interjected, asking if the committee could receive guidance from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office and the Department of Health about whether a traditional public hearing could be held in person. The council has been holding its meetings remotely because of COVID-19, but unlike Tuesday’s public hearing, regular council meetings don’t usually allow the public to speak.
“It is not fair to the public and to the members of the council to have to sit through this hate,” Salvatore said. “My recommendation is shut this down and let’s come up with a better solution.”
Igliozzi continued with the hearing, calling on former Councilman Sam Zurier, who testified about the budget, and another apparent Providence resident who testified about defunding the Providence Police.
After several more offensive comments, the “raise hand” tool disappeared from the bottom of the screen. Igliozzi then said that no more hands were raised to testify, and adjourned the meeting.
In a separate Finance Committee meeting after the hearing, also held on Zoom but not open to public testimony, Igliozzi said he would agree to reschedule the public hearing, but said it could “jeopardize” the city’s cash flow because it needs to be advertised with 10 days notice in The Providence Journal.
“From our perspective the public hearing was done correctly, but there were potential technical issues,” Igliozzi said. He said it would be “financially destructive” if the council cannot pass the tax levy and get the bills out soon.
The budget plan for how to spend the money will still be worked out over the coming weeks before passage, typically before July 1.
Councilman James Taylor asked that the rescheduled hearing take place in person, with proper social distancing, to avoid random people who don’t live in Providence being able to join.
Assistant City Solicitor Ken Chiaverini said the law department would look into whether Tuesday’s advertised public hearing could be continued and rescheduled with 48 hours’ notice, rather than the usual 10 days.
Matos pledged that the council would “thoroughly screen for participants who actually want to speak about the city’s budget,” but also “allow everyone who wants to participate the opportunity to do so.”