In the ward-based politics of the Providence City Council, it’s the rare councilor who publicly criticizes anything beyond the confines of his or her own turf.
Because of this — and as part of an effort to promote a broader citywide vision on the part of the council — a group of citizens are rallying behind a proposal to reconstitute the 15-member body with 10 ward seats and five at-large seats.
A related measure, introduced by Ward 2 Councilman Cliff Wood, has been referred to the council’s Ordinance Committee. “This is a good government reform,” says Wood, pointing to how the city councils in larger communities, such as Boston and Philadelphia, include at-large members.
The 2002 Charter Review Commission (providenceri.com/charter-report.pdf), advocated an identical change, offering this endorsement: “The presence of at-large members will free the City Council as a whole from the constraints of ward politics, encourage big-picture thinking, and provide additional avenues for citizens to express concerns about citywide issues. Furthermore, having several at-large seats on the Council will give the legislative branch more opportunities to give input to the executive branch on policies and actions that will affect the entire city, thus creating a better balance in visioning and decision-making.”
The catch is that proponents — who hope to get the issue placed on the November ballot — face the hurdle of first convincing the City Council to pass it.
Council President Peter S. Mancini says he favors keeping the current approach.
“We’re not that big of a city, first of all,” says Mancini, who disputes the notion that the status quo precludes broader thinking on the part of councilors. “I’m concerned with my ward and with surrounding wards also. It’s not like I just think of the 14th ward. We have committees that look at big issues. I don’t think that’s a very strong argument. We are parochial in one sense, but I think we can look further than that.”
With ward-based campaigns typically costing $20,000 on the low end, the addition of at-large seats could raise the specter of $100,000 campaigns, favoring more affluent parts of the city, Mancini says.
Wood, however, who defeated a long-term East Side council incumbent in 2006, calls meeting voters one-on-one and winning their support the key to victory. In a minority-majority city where minorities are underrepresented on the council, he also makes the point that adding at-large seats would offer a better chance, for example, to an Asian candi-date whose most ardent supporters might be spread across different wards.
While Wood introduced the legislation modeled on the recommendation by 2002 Charter Review Commission, a group of citizens, including Rochelle Lee, Barbara Fields, and Michael Van Leesten, is part of the effort pushing for council support.
Another member of the group, Steve Durkee, says the legislation has to be passed by the council by August 6 to be placed on the November ballot. “Most people I talk to says it’s a great idea,” Durkee says, adding that voters deserve the chance to decide the measure.