PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The president of an advocacy group that has successfully lobbied Providence officials to reduce property tax rates for landlords two years in a row said Wednesday he does not believe he is required to formally register as a city lobbyist because he isn’t paid for his services.
Keith Fernandes, president of the Providence Apartment Association, said an ordinance proposed by Councilman Sam Zurier that would require members of his group or similar organizations to register as lobbyists would be a “slippery slope” that “impacts your First Amendment rights to fight back.”
“Providence already has a lobbyist ordinance for people who represent special interests,” Fernandes said. “We’re not paid. We’re not lobbying for insider tax breaks or tax extensions like the ones the councilman has quietly voted to give builders downtown.”
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Zurier, a Democrat from the city’s East Side, will introduce a resolution at Thursday’s council meeting asking the council to discharge a proposed amendment to the city’s existing lobbyist ordinance from the City Council Ordinance Committee, which has not discussed the proposal in the five months since it was submitted.
Traditionally, ordinances are vetted by council committees and then sent to the full City Council for two approval votes. Discharges only occur on rare occasions, usually when a group of councilors feel an ordinance is deliberately being tabled by a committee. Council President Luis Aponte has already said the resolution is “inappropriate in form” because Zurier did not obtain seven signatures from his colleagues supporting his petition.
Zurier’s proposal is designed to require members of what he considers “financially active” organizations to register as lobbyists in the city. The ordinance would count organizations with an affiliated political action committee as well as organizations whose president or board members have contributed at least $1,500 to local candidates in the previous four years as “financially active.”
Under the existing city lobbyist ordinance, a lobbyist is defined as “any person who seeks to influence a municipal decision as an appointed and compensated representative” of another organization. Lobbyists are required to wear identification badges in City Hall and file quarterly reports with the city clerk detailing their lobbying activities. Fernandes maintains he is exempt from registering because he is not compensated.
“I think they have every right to advocate for their cause and they make good arguments,” Zurier said, referring to the apartment association. “Lobbying registration law is supposed to cover everybody. And yet because of a loophole in the law, the most powerful lobbying organization in the city does not have to register.”
Lobbyists or not, Fernandes and his organization are influential in City Hall.
Founded in 2010, the Providence Apartment Association has grown to nearly 500 landlords throughout the city. It is registered as a non-profit organization with the Rhode Island secretary of state’s office and its political action committee (PAC) is registered with the R.I. Board of Elections. Members pay between $50 and $200 per year in dues, according to its website.
The group largely focuses on reducing rental-property tax rates, which have grown exponentially since 2002 when city officials began charging landlords who don’t live in their home more than property owners who do. They’ve also advocated in opposition to tax-stabilization agreements for downtown apartment buildings, painting those tax breaks as “insider deals.”
As it stands now Providence’s owner-occupied property tax rate is $18.77 per $1,000 of assessed value and the non-owner-occupied rate to $31.91 per $1,000 of value. Fernandes’ group has successfully convinced the Elorza administration and the City Council to reduce the landlord rate by $1.84 per $1,000 of assessed value over the last two years.
“Their job is to reduce taxes for their group and they’ve been very successful,” Zurier said.
The group has also become more active in politics. Its PAC has contributed more than $16,000 to local politicians since 2010, according to a review of filings with the board. Separately, records show Fernandes has made $4, 862 in political contributions during the same period. On its website, the group touts successful efforts to help elect at least two council members who “understood our issues” in 2010.
Fernandes himself is a close ally of Council President Luis Aponte and Councilman Kevin Jackson, who served as council majority leader until his arrest in May. Fernandes played a behind-the-scenes role in helping Aponte and Jackson secure their leadership posts in 2015. Aponte is also one of Fernandes’s tenants in a two-family apartment on Blundell Street.
Fernandes maintains that his organization is being targeted by Zurier and other council members because “we are paying attention to where our city’s tax dollars are being spent and bringing to light the insider deals that have gone on for so long.”
“What Councilman Zurier is trying to do is to say to the people of Providence that if you want to organize and fight against the bad policies of elected officials, then you would have to register to be a lobbyist if you attend a fundraiser that they invite you to,” Fernandes said.