Providence Charter Review Questions: What Do They Mean and Do?

Voters in Providence have ten Charter Review questions to vote for. However, most news coverage has simply covered the text of the questions, not the actual changes to the Providence Charter.

The problem is that almost all of the questions are written in a way that you would be likely to vote yes: without any context, the questions seem like mostly good ideas. The Charter Review Commission’s work has received minimal coverage by the press and was poorly noticed by the Council (indeed, the fact that you can still edit the English language online survey asking about what should be changed suggests no one has even looked at it since it was posted).

Because of the lack of information and the deceptive wording, I’m preparing myself for almost all of the Charter Review questions to pass.

However, I do think it’s worth think a little more deeply about these. So here’s a list of what the questions are, what changes they make in law, and why you might or not support them. I’m hoping this will be of use to voters who are scratching their heads over what some of these mean, and might even be wondering why we don’t allow these things already (spoiler: some of the questions may hide what they actually mean).

For ease of navigation, I’ve dropped anchors to each of the questions (they start at 5 because of the four bond questions that proceed them).

EDIT: You can also read Sen. Tiara Mack’s Twitter thread which gives her views on these questions. Likewise, Councilor Helen Anthony has her stated positions and views here. And Sen. Sam Zurier wrote some concurrences to Anthony here.

Question 5: Approval of Mayor Appointments

Text: Shall Department Directors be required to appear before the City Council for re-appointment every four years? [Amends Section 302 (b)]

Charter Change(s) (bold, underlined text = change, strikethroughs = deletions):

The powers and duties of the mayor shall include, without limitation, the following:
(b) To appoint all heads of city departments and agencies with the approval of the city council, except as otherwise provided in this Charter, which approval shall be sought at the commencement of a mayor’s four (4) year term, regardless of whether the mayor has served a previous term; and to appoint such other officials as the mayor may be empowered to appoint by this Charter or by the laws of the state, with the approval of the city council unless the power of appointment is vested in the mayor alone. Except as otherwise provided herein, all such appointees shall serve at the pleasure of the mayor. In no case shall a person serving under an acting appointment hold office on that basis for more than ninety (90) days, nor shall a regular appointee serve beyond the expiration of the term for which he or she was appointed unless reappointed in accordance herewith

What Does It Do, and Why?

Simply put, this makes department and agencies leaders have to be approved by the Council every time a mayor is elected, not just the first time they were appointed. If there was regular changeover in which party controlled the mayor’s office, this might not be a necessary change. But, after twenty years of unbroken Democratic control of the mayor’s office, you can get department and agency heads that have survived both the mayors that initially appointed them, and the councilors who approved them. Some councilors object to this situation, especially when the majority has lost confidence in a head.

Is It Good?

My view: sure. In lieu of a check by a sorely-needed competitive opposition party, you can go the American route and create a checks between branches. Again, a competitive democracy, which Providence does not have, would likely remove the necessity for this amendment. If Providence ever gets a competitive democracy, this could become a bit of leverage an opposition party uses over the mayor.

If you favor a strong mayor over a strong council, you might oppose this. You might also oppose if you value continuity in government, that experienced department heads should be able to stay in place. Finally, you might argue that this could impede hiring, as it means your job security as a department or agency head only lasts until the next inauguration.

However, I don’t really find those too convincing, as the mayor will still be plenty strong, and continuity that can’t get a majority of votes on the Council will struggle to get its priorities funded anyway. As far as hiring goes, this likely doesn’t impede so much as remove an advantage.


Question 6: Votes Required to Hire Consultants

Text: Shall the City Council be allowed to hire consultants by vote of a simple majority? [Amends Section 401 (d)]

Charter Change(s) (bold, underlined text = change, strikethroughs = deletions):

  1. Legislative powers. The legislative powers of the city shall be vested in a city council, which shall have and exercise all powers vested in it by this Charter and by the laws of the state. The powers and duties of the city council shall include, without limitation, the following:
    (a) To enact such ordinances as the city council may consider necessary to insure the welfare
    and good order of the city and to provide penalties for the violation thereof;
    (b) To approve or reject all appointments submitted to the city council by the mayor pursuant
    to section 302(b) of Article III; provided, however, that any such appointment upon which the
    city council fails to act within thirty-five (35) calendar days of its submission shall be deemed to
    have been approved. The thirty-five (35) days shall commence with the first meeting of the city
    council at which the appointment appears on the agenda. The mayor may withdraw any
    appointment before it has been acted upon by the city council;
    (c) To adopt the annual city budget appropriation ordinance and levy taxes;
    (d) To retain by two-thirds majority vote of the entire city council and to fix the salaries of
    those consultants it deems necessary for the exercise of its functions including, but not limited to, legal counsel, accountants, engineers, and other experts not regularly employed in any city
    department or service. Legal counsel shall be retained by two-thirds vote of the entire city
    council and to fix the salaries of Legal counsel it deems necessary for the exercise of its
    functions.
    The city council shall have the power to appropriate funds to defray the costs thereof;

What Does It Do, and Why?

This is the first of our deceptively worded questions. This lowers the vote threshold by which a consultant can be hired by the Council from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority. In addition, it keeps the two-thirds majority requirement for legal counsel, so not all consultants get this new lower threshold.

I am not entirely sure why it’s necessary, except that it might be a pain to get ten votes for a consultant contract when councilors have other time commitments. My guess on why legal counsel is excluded is that legal counsel ostensibly represents the Council as a whole and their legal opinion can be quite important in influencing Council action, so that retains its two-thirds majority requirement.

Is It Good?

My view: maybe? This is going to make it easier to hire consultants. That’s neutral on the face of it. But it does mean that a majority that wants to behave badly and hire bad consultants will be harder to stop. On the other hand, should there ever arise a situation with an obstinate minority that just wants to block action, they will find their task that much harder.

How you vote may ultimately come down to how you feel about whether majorities should be allowed to govern, or whether minority views must be accommodated. I generally believe that in legislatures, majorities should govern, so I’ll say yes.


Question 7: Removal Procedure for Appointed Officers

Text: Shall the removal procedure for appointed officers be defined by ordinance and allow the City Council
to remove council appointees by a vote of a simple majority? [Amends Section 403]

Charter Change(s) (bold, underlined text = change, strikethroughs = deletions):

Subject to the general laws of the state, except as otherwise provided by this Charter, the city council may bring charges against any department head or agency head, any deputy thereof, any appointive officer of the city, any appointee of the city council or any appointee of the mayor, except the staff of the mayor’s office, for neglect of duty or gross misconduct having an effect upon the discharge of the duties of such person. Any such charges which the city council should choose to bring shall first be presented to the mayor, in writing. Not less than thirty (30) days after the delivery of such charges, the city council shall order a public hearing thereon, which hearing shall be held only after due notice to such person of the details of such charges and with reasonable provision for answer by said individual. The person so charged shall have the right to be heard, to be represented by counsel, and to request the city council to compel the attendance of witnesses and production of evidence, including relevant records of the city.
After such hearing is concluded, the city council may, upon the affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of all of its members, suspend or dismiss the person charged any department head or agency head, any deputy thereof, any appointive officer of the city, whereas a majority vote of all of its members is required to dismiss any appointee of the city council. Such action shall be final and not subject to veto by the mayor.
The hearing process may be specified in this charter or by ordinance.

What Does It Do, and Why?

This removes the threshold for removing Council appointees from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority, and also allows the Council to create a hearing process for removal of any department or agency head or appointive officer of the City.

This is another deceptively-worded question, because anyone might assume, on first reading, that this adds something to the Charter, rather than making the existing process easier to accomplish.

The context for this change is that earlier in his tenure, the Council President violated the Charter and removed the Clerk without going through the process described in the Charter. When a court finally said, “hey, you absolutely can’t do that,” he then had to do the public hearing route, which had never been done in the city before. The Clerk ultimately resigned before the hearing, but as one of the last acts of his presidency, the Council President has included this farewell change in our charter questions.

Because they’d never done the hearing process, no one on the Council knew how they were supposed to do it, and they were deeply uncomfortable with having to do the whole public hearing process in the first place. Thus, the decision to set the hearing process by ordinance.

Is It Good?

My view: no. While intent doesn’t really matter when it comes to interpretation, in my view, the Charter is written in a way that suggests that appointed officers are to be outside of political interference. They’re appointed with a majority, but have to be removed by a supermajority. This was clearly done for a reason.

However, whatever the intent, these roles have largely been subsumed to the will of the Council President who appoints them. That has significant problems for the health of our government, and an upright clerk who behaves in the best interest of the city even if it goes against the interests of the Council President is going to find themselves in hot water. This is already a problem, and it will get worse if this passes.

While the hearing process may need to be clarified, it was probably worth submitting that as a separate charter change entirely.


Question 8: Increasing the Purchasing Threshold

Text: Shall the purchasing threshold be increased from five thousand ($5,000.00) dollars to ten thousand ($10,000.00) dollars for regular purchasing and twenty thousand ($20,000.00) dollars for construction contracting. [Amends Section 1007 (c)(1)]

Charter Change(s) (bold, underlined text = change, strikethroughs = deletions):

  1. Board of contract and supply.
    There shall be a board of contract and supply whose members shall consist of the mayor, the
    president of the city council, the finance director, the city controller, the chairperson of the
    committee of the city council with jurisdiction over city property, the chairperson of the
    committee of the city council with jurisdiction over budgetary and financial matters, the director
    of public works, the commissioner of public safety, the city treasurer, the director of public
    property, the chairperson of the water supply board and the president of the school committee, all ex officio. In the absence of any of the above-named members, a deputy shall serve in the place of said member. On the first Monday of January, 1983, or as soon thereafter as may be practical, the members of the city council who are members of a political party or parties other than that of the mayor, or are independents, shall elect from their total number one member to serve on said board for a term of four (4) years. Any vacancy that may occur in the office of an elective member shall be filled for the unexpired term by those members of the city council eligible to vote for that elective member under the terms of this subsection. Failure to elect such elective member shall in no case prevent said board from acting. The city assessor shall likewise be, ex officio, a member of the board for such purposes as may be declared by ordinance.
    (a) The mayor, or in the absence of the mayor, the president of the city council, shall be the chairperson of said board. The city clerk, or in the absence of the city clerk, one of his or her deputies, shall act as clerk of said board.
    (b) In addition to the membership established herein, the city council, by ordinance, may appoint the heads of other city departments or agencies to the membership of the board of contract and supply, but may not deny membership to any member so named in this subsection unless the department or agency of which said member is the head shall have been abolished.
    (c) It shall be the responsibility of the board of contract and supply:
    (1) To make all contracts for purchase of materials, supplies, services, equipment and property on behalf of the city, the price or consideration of which shall exceed five fifteen thousand dollars ($5,000.00) ($15,000.00), and thirty-five thousand dollars ($35,000.00) for construction contracting on the basis of sealed bids solicited through public advertisement in a newspaper of general circulation in Providence, such bids to be submitted, opened and considered in accordance with rules and regulations approved by the board. The city council may increase the figures of five fifteen and thirty-five thousand dollars ($15,000.00 and $35,000.00) by a two-thirds vote following a public hearing, but no more often than once every five (5) years;
    (2) To insure before a contract is entered into that there exists sufficient appropriation to
    pay the cost thereof;
    (3) To reject any or all bids submitted to it for a specific purpose if it considers that the
    public interest will be best served thereby.
    (d) The board of contract and supply shall have the authority to enter into agreements with the state, or the United States, or any public body having authority to condemn property of the city, with respect to the value of any such property so taken; and shall have the authority to employ such experts as it shall deem necessary to assist it in the purchase of real estate, or in connection with the condemnation thereof, under such terms and conditions as the city council may set.

What Does It Do, and Why?

Basically, the City can now put out contracts for up to $15,000 (and $35,000 for construction contracts) without seeking approval from the Board of Contract & Supply, a process which can add significant time delays.

Contractors may not want that hassle to work with the City. In addition, because of inflation and the growth of government, the process of approval is slowed down even further by the number of things necessary to approve. This change makes it a little easier for the City to do its work, and also for the Board of Contract & Supply to do their work (which in turns helps the former).

As an aside, I also feel like this highlights some very odd ways the drafting of Charter Review text works. It appears these changes add two extra spaces into the text, and you can see that they crossed out one instance of “$5,000.00” to replace with “$15,000.00” but in the other instance simply appended a “1” in front of the “5,000.00.”

Is It Good?

My view: yeah. There are two reasons to oppose this. One: you really like to gum up the gears of government by using its own bureaucracy against it. Or, two: you are very concerned that City officials will use this to corruptly award contracts to their friends.

There’s no helping the first reason, but the second reason ignores all the other transparency and good government aspects of City purchasing that have to be done, such as soliciting three bids, scoring, and the rest, all of which is information that can at least be obtained through a public records request. If any corruption were to occur, it’d be relatively easy to find out.


Question 9: Water Supply Manager- Responsibilities

Text: Shall the new position of General Manager of the Water Supply Board be established with oversight authority over all personnel matters of the Water Supply Board separate and apart from the position of Chief Engineer. [Amends Section 1101(a)(3)(4)(5)and(b)]

Charter Change(s) (bold, underlined text = change, strikethroughs = deletions):

1101 – Water supply board.
There shall be a water supply board which shall consist of the director of finance, ex officio, and six (6) other members, four (4) of whom shall be appointed by the mayor for four-year terms arranged in such a manner that the term of one appointed member shall expire annually and two (2) of whom shall be elected by the city council from among its members to serve for a term of four (4) years. The city council may elect members to the water supply board who are not presently members of the city council, provided that such members serve a term concurrent with the term of the city council. Annually at its first meeting following the qualification of new members, the board shall elect one of its appointive members to serve as chairperson. In the event of a vacancy in the office of chairperson, the board shall fill the vacancy for the balance of the term. No member of the board shall continue in office after his or her term expires without being reappointed by the mayor or re-elected by the city council as the case may be.
(a) Powers and duties. The powers and duties of the water supply board shall include, without limitation, the following:
(1) To supervise, manage and control water collection, storage, purification, and distribution system of the city and other areas within its jurisdiction;
(2) To protect and conserve the water supply of the city and other areas within its jurisdiction;
(3) To appoint for a period of not more than five (5) years a general manager who shall have at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and five (5) or more years of supervisory experience in the administration of a utility system.
(3)(4) To appoint for a period of not more than five (5) years a chief engineer who shall be a professional engineer with at least five (5) years of service as such; and to remove the general manager or chief engineer for official misconduct or failure to perform the duties of the office, after notice and hearing, by a vote of a majority of its members.
(4)(5) To appoint a legal advisor, subject to the approval of the mayor, to hold office at the pleasure of the board, for the purpose of advising the water supply board upon all questions involving its official actions and business; provided that said legal advisory shall be subordinate to the city solicitor and in all litigation to which the city may be a party, said legal advisor shall be under the direction of the city
solicitor.
(b) General manager’s Chief engineer’s powers and duties. The general manager chief engineer shall have sole charge of the city water system in every particular, being subject at all times to the prescribed orders and direction of the water supply board, and shall personally attend to all administrative and supervisory details of operating the water system, including personnel matters, subject to the orders and direction of the board. The general manager chief engineer shall annually prepare a report for presentation to the board, mayor and city council containing a description of the general operation of the water system, a detailed statement of expenditures and income and such other data and information as the board may require.

What Does It Do, and Why?

This creates a general manager position for Providence’s Water Supply Board. As far as I know, there has not been a publicly stated reason for why this is necessary, and there has been no stated reason for why the chief engineer cannot act in this capacity.

Is It Good?

My view: probably not. There’s a lot of reason to be skeptical about it. Councilor Rachel Miller, likely the next Council President, advised constituents to vote against it. It’s being passed by a commission led by a lame duck Council President who has previously trampled on the Charter. And the current chief engineer is pretty open and frank about how poorly maintained the city’s water and sewage infrastructure is. Unless there’s some undisclosed hotbed of personnel issues, I could only really see this interfering with the chief engineer.


Question 10: Department Heads

Text: Shall the Charter clarify that all department heads and appointed officers are subject to all applicable
personnel regulations of the City? [Amends Section 1201]

Charter Change(s) (bold, underlined text = change, strikethroughs = deletions):

  1. General provisions for departments.
    The following provisions shall apply to all heads of departments and to all departments of city government, subject to any exceptions and qualifications set forth in this Charter or in state law.(a) Qualifications of department heads. It shall be the responsibility of the mayor in the making
    of all appointments of department heads pursuant to section 302(b), to appoint, and it shall be the responsibility of the city council to approve, only persons who are qualified by training,
    education or previous experience for the positions they are to hold, and who meet the
    qualifications for any such position as may be specified in this Charter or by ordinance. All
    department heads shall be subject to applicable personnel regulations that may hereafter be
    adopted.

What Does It Do, and Why?

It requires that department heads be subject to applicable personnel regulations. The question text claims this extends to appointive officers, but the charter change only says “department heads” where previous language has otherwise specified “agency heads” and “appointive officers”. That shouldn’t be an issue, the Clerk is elsewhere in the Charter said to have the status of a department head, but maybe an enterprising lawyer could make something of that.

When the Council President went to remove the City Clerk, the officially stated reason was for violation of personnel regulations. Then it all became complicated very quickly as the Council President violated the Charter to remove the clerk, the initial HR investigation cleared the Clerk, and then the Council President and Clerk fought about whether the Clerk should be reinstated (the Clerk won in court). Then the rest happened.

This seems like it likely came out of that.

Is It Good?

My view: sure, people should be subject to personnel regulations. I do question how this interacts with removal procedures in the Charter, but I don’t know that that’s a serious worry.


Question 11: Addition of Elected School Board Members

Text: Shall the number and composition of school board members be increased from nine (9) to ten (10), to include five (5) members elected in a non-partisan manner at the November 2024 general election, one from each of five (5) equal electoral regions representing the North, South, East, West, and Central areas of the City; and five (5) members appointed by the mayor with the approval of the city council, with one appointee from each of the five (5) equal electoral regions [Amends Section 701]

Charter Changes:

I’m not actually going to copy all these (you can read them here), instead I will summarize:

  1. For schools, the city gets divided into five “electoral regions” (what we more typically would call “districts”). These are specified in the ballot question to represent the “North, South, East, West, and Central areas of the City”, but that requirement is not in the text.
  2. The school board is increased to ten members from its current nine.
  3. Half of the school board is appointed by the mayor to three-year terms; except the three of the first five appointees, of whom one will serve a one-year term, and two will serve a two-year term. Subsequent appointees serve a full three years.
  4. Each appointee needs to reside in a different region.
  5. Half of the school board is elected every four years, one per region, in a nonpartisan plurality election. There are no stated term limits for school board.
  6. Elected school board members can be recalled in the same manner as councilors.

Why?

I’ve written about why I believe we need an elected school board. But one view has been to argue for this “hybrid” model, which retains appointed members to act as specialists or ensure voices that represent specific experiences, backgrounds, or other groups appear on the Board.

This seems like a way to reach towards that hybrid compromise.

The reality is that Providence Schools are generally not accountable to… anyone. And there are significant differences in the way we approach school policy that having some sort of democratic accountability could be helpful.

Also, elsewhere the Council has been clear that there is no taxing authority delegated to the school board in this proposed change.

Is It Good?

My view: not all compromise is inherently good.

Past and future mayors have come out and argued against “inserting more politics into Providence schools“. Councilor Miller offered constituents three reasons that swayed her against: 1. elected school boards aren’t better or worse for outcomes than appointed ones; 2. elected school boards tend to be whiter and wealthier than the areas they represent, and the five regions are larger than state senate districts, meaning this is likely to be the case for Providence as well; 3. the current fully-appointed school board means that both Mayor and Council are responsible for the schools because they have to set their budget.

Of these, I only think of Miller’s first two points as worthwhile. Politics is how we resolve policy disputes, it shouldn’t be seen as a negative; be wary of politicians who warn you against politics.

There is a view that we’ve tried the current system already since its implementation under Mayor Doorley in the 1960s, and schools haven’t gotten any better. It’s understandable why someone would vote “yes” for this considering that. Worst case, the group of people no one knows who they are is a little whiter and richer, but overall, the likely outcome is no change.

If the outcome is likely to be “no change” then we need to evaluate everything else it does. First, these are nonpartisan seats, meaning that a vital piece of voting information, partisan affiliation, is hidden from the voter. Republicans have been engaged in a full scale war on public schools, particularly using non-white people and LGTBQ people as villains by which to dismantle public schools. Voters should be able to know if the person who will represent them on the board belongs to the party that wants to dismantle the American education system or the party that seeks to improve it.

Similarly, there is a significant issue where the board is both an even number of members, and half of that membership lacks any popular democratic support. What happens in the event that the appointed members act as a unified bloc, using just one elected member as needed to control the board? What happens if the five electeds split against the five appointeds, how will they resolve this should it prove intractable? This will likely lead to a legitimacy crisis for the Board. That also undercuts the idea of this Board being accountable.

Finally, the way I have often heard the five “regions” discussed is as amalgamations of Council wards, that for ease, they would be drawn by combining three wards into a single region. That’s not the case in the text, meaning there is a strong chance that Providence elections administration is going to become even more complicated, and the proliferation of pocket precincts could become a massive problem with these additional overlapping lines.

So, in summary, this question creates many potential avenues for headaches and problems and only offers the likelihood of “no change”. If you of the mind “we’ve done everything else, why not this?” then vote for it. That’s not enough for me, considering everything else.


Question 12: Chairman and Vice-Chairman Language

Text: Shall the terms “chairman” and “vice-chairman” be replaced with the terms “chair” and “vice-chair” wherever they appear in the charter?

Charter Changes:

I’m also not going to quote this one because the most straightforward question of the ten.

What Does It Do, and Why?

It changes references to chairs and vice-chairs to gender neutral language, language which previously assumed a man. This was long outdated, especially as the Council reaches gender parity.

Is It Good?

Unambiguously yes. This is the easiest “yes” vote you can cast.


Question 13: City Treasurer

Text: Shall the City Treasurer be provided direct access to records of all receipts, appropriations, and allotments of the City, and be required to ensure compliance with the City Charter and Code of Ordinances prior to issuing any payments. [Amends Section 602]

Charter Change(s) (bold, underlined text = change, strikethroughs = deletions):

  1. – City treasurer.
    (a) Election and term. On the first Monday in January, 1983, or as soon thereafter as may be practical, and every four (4) years thereafter on the first Monday in January, or as soon thereafter as may be practical, the city council shall elect, by a vote of a majority of all of its members, a city treasurer who shall be a college graduate and shall have training and at least five (5) years’ experience in fiscal management or the equivalent training or experience. The city treasurer shall serve until a successor shall have qualified; provided, however, that in the event of a vacancy in said office, such vacancy shall be filled within thirty (30) days of its occurrence by a majority of the entire city council for the remainder of the term. The city treasurer shall have the status of a department head and shall have all powers and perform all duties vested in the office of the city treasurer by the provisions of this charter or otherwise.
    (b) [Powers and duties.] The powers and duties of the city treasurer shall be, without limitation, the following:
    (1)To maintain, independent of the city controller, a schedule of appropriations and allotments as approved by the city council; To have direct access to records to all receipts, appropriations, and allotments of the city.
    (2)To review the decisions of the controller as to the sufficiencies sufficiency of funds and in conformity with the Home Rule Charter and Code of Ordinances before approving payment of any bill, payroll or other claim, demand or charge against the city;
    (3) To maintain have direct access to records which accurately reflect the financial condition of the city;
    (4) To have custody of all public funds belonging to or under the control of the city, or any office, department or agency of city government;
    (5)To select depositories from among those financial institutions approved by the finance director pursuant to Article VIII, section 813(a)(6), and deposit all funds coming into the treasurer’s hand in such depositories, subject to the requirements of all as to surety and the payment of interest on deposits; but all such interest shall be the property of the city, and shall be accounted for and credited to the proper account;
    (6) To have custody of all investments and invested funds of the city government, or in possession of such government, in a fiduciary capacity, and have the safekeeping of all bonds and notes of the city and the receipt and delivery of city bonds and notes for transfer, registration, or exchange;
    (7) To supervise the preparation of bond ordinances, bonds, advertisements for sale of bonds and delivery of bonds, subject to provisions of state law and city ordinance.

What Does It Do, and Why?

The City Treasurer is another appointed office that is nominally independent of the rest of government, but in practice has become subsumed to the will of the Council and the Council President specifically. This question strips them of a duty to maintain financial records, my guess would be to reduce redundancy, but I don’t actually know, and replaces it with a Charter-prescribed ability to access all financial records.

Again, my guess is that having the Treasurer have to coordinate with other financial personnel in the City has become a huge hassle, and that there may have been impediments to the sharing of information between various finance officers that have resulted in the Treasurer not having accurate information. This takes the onus of record-keeping off of the Treasurer.

Is It Good?

Maybe? There’s a strong chance that, like much of city government, the Treasurer has had to do more with less, and being required under the Charter to maintain financial records for the whole city is a massive undertaking. Being able to simply access records could free up the Treasurer to do more helpful tasks.

On the other hand, the Treasurer was ostensibly granted that power for a reason, and it could be worth interrogating whether or not that reason has become irrelevant.

Unfortunately, who knows, the Commission didn’t even mention this question in their final report.


Question 14: City Plan Commission

Text: Shall the Composition of the City Plan Commission be amended to add an additional representative from the general citizenry of the City of Providence. [Amends Section 1013]

Charter Change(s) (bold, underlined text = change, strikethroughs = deletions):

1013. – City plan commission.

There shall be a city plan commission of seven (7) members. The mayor shall appoint, and the
city council approve, five (5) members, who shall be qualified voters of the city, to serve for
staggered five-year terms, with appointments arranged so that the term of one member shall
expire each year. One member shall have experience in real estate, development or finance; one
member shall have experience in city planning, architecture or urban design; one member shall
have experience in human services or environmental sciences
; and two three (3 2) members shall
represent the general citizenry of the city. The president of the city council and the mayor, or
their designees, shall serve as members, ex officio. Any vacancy among the appointed members
of the commission shall be filled by the mayor with the approval of the city council to serve for
the remainder of the unexpired term. No member shall serve beyond the date of expiration of
said term unless reappointed.

What Does It Do, and Why?

This removes the requirement that a member of the City Plan Commission have experience in human services or environmental sciences and increases the number of people who are only required to “represent the general citizenry of the city.”

Is It Good?

My view: no, not really. Everyone on the Plan Commission needs to be “qualified voters of the city” – which means they can already ostensibly act to “represent the general citizenry”. The reality is that both these requirements are wide enough that you can appoint just about anyone. Especially as climate change becomes more and more important, it seems helpful to require that a member of the Plan Commission, which determines how land is used in the City, might have a background in environmental sciences. And it also seems that someone concerned about health might be helpful when deciding how buildings should be sited.

There is no such thing as “the general citizenry” – it’s a helpful fiction that can be defined in any manner ways.


I hope this helps folks cast their votes, and maybe illuminates to you why I consider this Charter Review Commission an abject failure. There was a real opportunity to invite the people of Providence to consider how government functions and examine which structures must be altered to achieve a better city.

Unfortunately, what we got was poorly-noticed meetings, nonfunctional online surveys no one knew about, a final report that doesn’t mention a number of questions, charter questions that were approved without the actual written charter changes even existing at the time, and charter questions that are misleadingly worded to achieve a “yes” outcome.

The hour is late, I don’t know that this will change any outcome, but it seemed like something I could offer to help people think through these questions.

My hope is that this really highlights for people the importance of having a good charter review process when it has to happen again ten years from now, and that people will be vigilant and push for something that results in meaningful and clear questions put to the voters.

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