What Brett Smiley’s departure means for Providence City Hall and why it matters

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – If you want to get something done in Providence, call Brett.

For much of the last 19 months, that was the sentiment held by everyone from the City Council and General Assembly to developers and business leaders throughout the state. Jorge Elorza might be the mayor, but as the city’s chief operating officer, Brett Smiley was the go-to guy in City Hall.

When officials seeking to expand ProvPort were ready to bring the Elorza administration in on their plan to seek a $20-million bond, they called Brett. When State House leaders were pursuing a standardized tax-break ordinance on the I-195 land, they called Brett. In a recent interview, one high-ranking state official repeatedly referred to Smiley as the “deputy mayor.”

Now, as the 37-year-old Smiley prepares to leave City Hall to become Gov. Gina Raimondo’s chief of staff, the Elorza administration finds itself at a crossroads. With the mayor quickly approaching the second half of his first term, observers say he’ll need to find someone who can quickly manage the relationships Smiley built and improve some of the ones the mayor has struggled with, particularly at the State House.

“In the year-and-a-half we’ve worked with him, Brett has proved himself to be reasonable, forthright and knowledgeable,” Council President Luis Aponte said Monday. “We may agree or disagree but he always tells you what he thinks. Those traits are important in government.”

While Smiley’s role includes overseeing all city operations as well as economic development, he earned his paycheck by managing the administration’s relationship with Aponte and his 14 colleagues on the council. Even during tense budget negotiations, Smiley was known for keeping his cool.

In June 2015, at the tail end of a surprisingly smooth budget process, council leaders thought they had an agreement on the tax-and-spending plan in place. At the last minute, the mayor said he wanted to provide free bus passes to more high school students in the city and reduce a slight tax-rate cut for city landlords that was promised by the council.

The council was livid, not because members objected to the bus passes, but because they viewed the Elorza administration as going back on its word. The beef between the two sides simmered for months, but Smiley was able to win back to the trust of the council.

“He worked hard given the construct he was given,” Council Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi said. “I think he was a very important asset to the city of Providence. He was a person of his word, which is very important. And he respected everybody’s roles.”

Outside of City Hall, Smiley, whose husband James DeRentis is among the city’s most well-known real estate brokers, was considered the administration’s top liaison to the business community. Even though the city ultimately lost out on its push to bring Citizens Bank to the Superman building, it was Smiley’s full-court press that helped keep talks alive.

Similarly, Smiley led the effort on the administration side to convince the City Council to approve a tax-stabilization ordinance for projects on the vacant I-195 land, a policy state leaders aggressively advocated for. At a press conference the day of the announcement, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio specifically named Smiley as a driving force behind the deal.

“It’s big shoes to fill,” Daniel Baudouin, executive director of the Providence Foundation, said Monday. “Brett did a lot of things in City Hall.”

Baudouin said having Smiley “sitting next to governor” won’t be a bad thing for Providence, but “we hope the mayor will find someone as good as Brett was.”City still faces challenges

Of course, Smiley isn’t leaving City Hall with a perfect record.

Last July the city sent a letter to state officials disclosing that it expected to end the fiscal year with a balanced budget. But it actually finished with a $5-million shortfall. The deficit set off alarm bells in the state auditor general’s office, forcing the city to submit a plan for paying down its cumulative deficit.

When it comes to Providence’s long-term fiscal health, city officials still haven’t mapped out a strategy for addressing more than $2-billion in obligations to retirees. The city did work with a national consulting firm to study its finances, but Smiley will leave City Hall before the administration introduces a formal plan later this year.

And while Smiley helped negotiate union contracts with the city’s teachers, laborers and school clerical workers, he played little role in assisting Elorza with the mayor’s biggest headache to date: an ongoing legal dispute with the city’s firefighters that appears to have no end in sight.

Smiley’s departure isn’t a total surprise. The rumors that he would be leaving City Hall have been flying for more than a year, so much so that he would regularly joke, “Am I going anywhere good this time?” when reporters inquired about his future.

But even as the administration saw the departures of school Superintendent Susan Lusi, communications director David Ortiz, policy director Sheila Dormody and City Council liaison Jon Boucher, Smiley maintained he was enjoying his role in Providence.

In an interview Monday, he acknowledged a job with Raimondo was simply too good to pass up. He begins as the governor’s chief of staff Sept. 6.

“I’m excited to take the next step of everything I learned here and take it to the governor’s office,” Smiley said.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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