Target 12: City Council members chronically absent

Providence City Hall

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the Providence City Council Ways and Means Committee gathered for a meeting on the last Thursday before Christmas to discuss a special report on a multimillion-dollar tax break program, it ran into an all too familiar problem.

Despite having two lawyers from the city solicitor’s office as well as several City Council members who do not serve on the committee in attendance, three of the panel’s five sitting members were missing. Unable to reach a quorum, the meeting was canceled.

A Target 12 review of three years of attendance records from the full Providence City Council and its eight subcommittees shows a pattern of chronic absenteeism among several council members, including some who missed 62%, 85% and even 100% of the meetings scheduled by their committees.

According to public records, the worst offenders include:

  • City Council President Pro Tempore Terrence Hassett, who was absent from 62% of Ways and Means Committee meetings; 76% of Ordinance Committee meetings; and 100% of Education Subcommittee meetings over the last three years;
  • City Councilman John Igliozzi, who missed 85% of Claims Committee meetings and 80% of Public Works meetings between 2011 and 2013;
  • City Councilman Davian Sanchez, who had the worst attendance record for full council meetings, missing 24% of them since he took office in 2011.

Hassett, Igliozzi and Sanchez aren’t alone. Records show six council members were absent from at least 15% of the 109 City Council meetings held between 2011 and 2013.

On the committees, City Council President Michael Solomon missed 54% of Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning Committee meetings before stepping down from it in 2012; City Councilman Wilbur Jennings was absent from Public Works Committee meetings 21% of the time.

The poorest attendance records tend to belong to veteran council members who sit on multiple committees. Hassett and Igliozzi have a combined 34 years of experience serving on the council, and each sits on least four of the subcommittees. Igliozzi, who represents Silver Lake, refused to respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hassett: I come to the “crucial meetings”

Despite his high absence rate, Hassett said his experience and his work in the community have made him a successful council member.

“I’m sitting down with billionaires, developers, attorneys from across the world [asking], ‘How can we accomplish this?’ Those are the kinds of demonstrative duties I have on the council,” Hasset said. “And I’ve been here for 17 years and I understand that.”

Hassett, who represents Smith Hill, won his seat in a special election in 1997 and has never faced a serious primary or general election challenge since then. Less than a month before he was re-elected in 2010, Hassett was nearly killed in a hit-and-run accident on Atwells Avenue, but he said he is now in “perfect health.”

Hassett acknowledged that he has missed many meetings on certain committees, but said he has always attended the “crucial meetings” where key decisions are made.

He also resigned from the Education Subcommittee in 2012 and said he plans to step down from the Ordinance Committee and the Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning Committee so he can focus his efforts on the Ways and Means Committee and the Public Works Committee, a panel he chairs and where he has had near-perfect attendance.

“Committee meetings are important, yes,” Hassett told Target 12. “And you can be on time and you sit there and you’re in attendance. The question is: are you participating in that meeting? Are you giving your view?”

Council salary and benefits cost $1.95 million

Each of the 15 members of the Providence City Council are elected to serve four-year terms, and all of them are up for re-election this year. The full council meets on the first and third Thursdays of every month, while subcommittee schedules vary depending on the issue at hand.

The Ways and Means Committee, for example, is charged with vetting the city’s $663 million budget and tends to meet weekly. The Claims Committee, which signs off on payments to cover lawsuits or cars damaged by potholes, met 20 times between 2011 and 2013. Records show that of the 314 committee meetings that were held over three years, fewer than 30% took place with perfect attendance.

“Our constituents need to be assured that they are our top priority and that in addition to attending meetings, we are working in our neighborhoods and at grassroots levels to improve the quality of life for the residents of our city,” Councilman David Salvatore, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee told Target 12.

Although council members are considered part-time, rank-and-file members are paid $18,765, while the council president and majority leader each earn $20,850. All council members are also entitled to health benefits and a city cellphone, giving them by far the most generous compensation of any municipal council in Rhode Island.

All told, Providence taxpayers will spend $1.95 million on salaries and medical benefits for the council over its current four-year term, according to city records.

The current crop of City Council members, all Democrats, have faced a challenging term.

Upon taking office in 2011, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and the council learned the city was facing a $110 million structural deficit. By 2012, Taveras was warning that the city could file for bankruptcy if it didn’t act fast.

The two branches of city government maintained a generally cordial relationship while enacting pension changes and winning concessions from the city’s nonprofit hospitals and universities. The council also approved two property tax increases in three years to help right the ship. Last month, the city announced that the various steps had given the city a $1.6 million surplus in its 2012-13 fiscal year.

A “black eye” for the whole council

Successes aside, at least one City Council member said Providence might be in better financial shape if some his colleagues showed up to work more often.

Councilman Michael Correia, who represents parts of Mount Pleasant and Manton, told Target 12 he finds some of the attendance data “quite alarming,” especially for subcommittee meetings where “all the workings happen.”

“If you don’t have the time or the energy to do it, step aside and let one of our other colleagues that are not on a committee assignment step in to that position,” Correia said.

He said he is disappointed that some of his colleagues’ attendance records have created a “black eye” for the entire council.

“There are some council members that if they represented me, I would not vote for them to represent me again,” Correia said.

For his part, Sanchez – the city council member who missed more full City Council meetings than any of his colleagues – said family issues have prevented him from attending every meeting. But he pledged to recommit himself in the final year of his term, and said he will be seeking re-election this year.

“I’m proud of the work I’ve done,” Sanchez said, without offering specifics.

There is nothing currently in the city charter that prohibits a council member from missing too many meetings, but Correia said he plans to fight for the council to adopt a strict attendance policy moving forward. He said he’d like for his colleagues to be forced to resign from any committee if they miss three consecutive meetings.

Providence wouldn’t be the first city to attempt to address persistent absenteeism among its council members. In Dallas, the council approved a law that would reduce a member’s pay if they missed enough meetings. In Tustin, Calif., the council approved a measure that would reprimand any member who is absent more than two meetings in three months.

Solomon, the council president, said the city has made a commitment to transparency by adding implementing its open government portal, which allows the public to watch meetings online, and to search agenda items, proposed legislation, and view councilors’ voting records. The portal will also list attendance records for council meetings dating back to 2013.

“Constituents elected us to be their voice for the city, and we take that responsibility seriously,” Solomon, who has posted near-perfect attendance for full council meetings, told Target 12. “We will continue to foster engagement, promote efficiency, and increase accountability through our transparency initiatives.”

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

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