What Mayor Elorza has learned, two months on the job

WPRI/Dan McGowan

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – About 90 minutes after he was sworn in as Providence’s 38th mayor, Jorge Elorza stood in his undecorated second-floor office in City Hall talking to a group of reporters about his vision for Rhode Island’s capital city. Elorza joked that he had one worry about his new job.

“My biggest concern is the snowstorms,” Elorza said.

Mother Nature wasn’t so welcoming.

Nearly two months into his term, Elorza has double-majored in meteorology and public works as snowstorm after snowstorm has pummeled Southern New England, closing schools, disrupting businesses and creating treacherous travel conditions as city workers scramble to clean up the mess.

At the same time, the 38-year-old political newcomer has gone to work laying the foundation for his administration while trying to understand the realities of the city’s financial condition. He’s also learning that the politics of being mayor is different than the politics of being a candidate for mayor.

“It’s been going well,” Elorza told WPRI.com during a wide-ranging interview Monday afternoon. “It’s about focusing on a vision for the city and then executing. Providence has to be a city that just works.”

When it comes to the snow, not everyone believes the city has worked.

On Feb. 10, two weeks after a blizzard dumped more than 20 inches of snow across the city, the City Council’s Public Works Committee met for an hour to discuss the intricacies of snow removal with the city’s operations director and its acting public works director. They discussed inspections and manpower and plowing curb to curb, but committee members really had just one question.

“What happened?” asked Councilman Michael Correia, who chairs the committee.

The answer: it snowed. A lot at the end of January and even more this month. At 31.6 inches, Providence has already seen a record amount of snowfall in February. School has been closed six times, forcing the city to ask the state Board of Education to allow it to shorten the school year by one day. If the main roads were bad, the narrow side roads were impassable, sometimes for days.

For his part, Elorza said he understands the frustration. He said the city’s weatherman, Steve Cascione, was “right on” when he told the mayor this could be a devastating winter. But even with plenty of warning – there was no December Debacle this year – the city has struggled to keep up, and Elorza acknowledged he may have to make strategic changes moving forward.

“The reality might be that in terms of snowfall, this might be the new normal,” Elorza said. “If it is, there’s no assurance that the equipment that we’ve had in the past and the strategy we’ve had in the past is going to be sufficient. So we’re going to have to plan for what this new reality might be.”

A quick transition

Unlike former Mayors Angel Taveras and David Cicilline, Elorza didn’t have the luxury of time when it came to transitioning into City Hall. Like Elorza, Taveras and Cicilline each won September Democratic primaries, but they didn’t have serious opponents in the November general election. Elorza faced Buddy Cianci, the infamous former mayor who outspent the Democrat during the final two months of the campaign.

For Elorza, an avid jogger who hosts weekly runs with constituents, the nine weeks between his victory over Cianci and inauguration day was more sprint than marathon. He quickly hired his senior staff, including chief operating officer Brett Smiley and chief of staff Tony Simon. Smiley ran for mayor before backing out and supporting Elorza. Simon previously worked in U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s office.

Elorza chose to keep Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, Police Chief Hugh Clements, school Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi and most of Taveras’s finance department on his staff, but is still searching for an economic development director and a new fire chief. He has named several residents to the city Ethics Commission, a panel that was created in 2006, but never appointed members.

Elorza also named Nicole Pollock, a Brown University graduate with an environmental background, as his chief innovation officer. Pollock is tasked with “working with department directors and city employees to find areas for efficiency in city government and improve the delivery of services throughout Providence,” according to a press release announcing her hiring. Elorza has also ordered a full audit of the city’s school department, which he expects to receive next week.

All the while, Elorza is learning that even if the city isn’t facing the “Category 5 fiscal hurricane” that Taveras encountered in 2011, Providence is far from well off. His finance director told the state the city is facing a $3.6-million budget deficit for the current fiscal year, although he said he believes the budget can be balanced. Providence’s internal auditor says the city also faces a $23.1-million deficit for Elorza’s first budget, which takes effect July 1.

“We’re dealing with some cost overruns as a result of the previous administration,” Elorza said. The mayor has hired Michael D’Amico, Taveras’s former director of administration, as an advisor on the budget. Taveras told WPRI.com he expects D’Amico can guide the city to a “modest surplus.”

D’Amico will also assist with union negotiations. The city’s teachers’ union contract expired Aug. 31 and the two sides are currently in mediation as they try to settle a dispute. Local 1033, the municipal employees union, has a contract that ends this summer and the group is upset that the city is considering privatizing its bus monitors.

Despite the projected shortfall for his first budget, Elorza said he is standing by his pledge to not raise taxes during his first year in office.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not an option,” Elorza said. “People are taxed out.”

‘We’re going to be fine’

If snow and budgeting are part of the nuts and bolts of being mayor, the politics is what can make or break your career. For Elorza, the results have been mixed.

Up front, city and state leaders have offered nothing but praise for the new mayor. City Council President Luis Aponte said he and Elorza meet at least once a week. He said the administration has been very open with the council. State Rep. John Carnevale, who has co-chaired the Providence delegation in the General Assembly for six years, said “this year has been the easiest year so far.”

Behind the scenes, though, a different narrative has played out.

Elorza informed popular state Sen. Maryellen Goodwin she would return to her old job in the city’s planning department after serving as Taveras’s deputy chief of staff for much of 2014. That amounted to a $30,000 cut in pay. Then he selected longtime friend Victor Capellan to replace Goodwin as chair of the Providence Democratic City Committee. He was also one of the few major elected officials in the state who missed Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio’s first fundraiser of the year, a no-no in Rhode Island’s political class.

Knowing he’ll need the Senate to help Providence come budget time, Elorza is unfazed. He said he’s committed to “connecting with people at a personal level.”

“We’re going to be fine,” Elorza said. “It’s just a matter of continuing to nurture the relationships that we’re already building.”

With just under a month until spring, Elorza is already looking forward to sunnier days. He said he plans to deliver his budget address to the City Council in April. Keeping with recent tradition, he won’t give a State of the City address in his first year in office.

Elorza also expressed initial interest in the idea of bringing the Pawtucket Red Sox to Providence – he said he learned about the proposal two weeks ago but was “sworn to secrecy” – but he said it is too soon to say what type of taxpayer support the city could offer the team.

The mayor said he’s continuing to work toward achieving two of his top campaign goals: increasing productivity on the city’s waterfront and launching a major arts and cultural festival in downtown. He said he’s still convening meetings about his plan to double exports from the port of Providence within five years. The Providence International Arts Festival will begin June 11.

“It is awesome,” he said. “We’re going to bring all of Kennedy Plaza and Washington Street to life.”

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

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