Providence City Council split over plan to name athletic center after colleague

Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A proposal to name the athletic center at the Providence Career and Technical Academy after City Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson prompted a rare floor debate at Thursday’s council meeting, with several councilors questioning the timing of the resolution.

The request to name the facility after Jackson, a longtime track and field coach in the city, was made by Robert Palazzo, the athletic director at Classical High School. The resolution is co-sponsored by Council President Luis Aponte (Ward 10), Councilwomen Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) and Jo-Ann Ryan (Ward 5) and Councilmen Michael Correia (Ward 6) and John Igliozzi (Ward 7).

The matter was referred to the Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning.

“This kind of thing will subject the council as a body to scorn and ridicule,” Councilman Seth Yurdin, who represents Ward 1 on the East Side, told his colleagues. “Providence deserves better.”

Councilman Sam Zurier (Ward 2) and Councilwoman Sabina Matos (Ward 15) each said they don’t plan to support the proposal either. Zurier said he thinks the council should focus on important matters, like the city’s shaky finances. Matos said she doesn’t believe facilities should be named after sitting council members.

“I would not do it for anybody,” Matos said. “I would not do it for the council president. I would not do it for myself.”

Jackson is the longest-serving member of the City Council, having represented Ward 3 on the East Side since 1995. He is known as one of the council’s most vocal supporters of the city’s schools and youth sports programs. A track coach at Rhode Island College, he started the Providence Cobras youth track-and-field team in 1978.

“I didn’t ask for this,” Jackson told WPRI.com after the meeting.

Several of Jackson’s colleagues rushed to his defense.

Harris, whose Upper South Providence neighborhood includes the Providence Career and Technical Academy, described Jackson as someone “who cares about children, a person who invests their time in making sure young people have opportunities.”

“I feel right now, for my community, and for folks I’ve talked to about this project, that this is the right timing,” Harris said.

Ryan said Jackson has “devoted his life’s work” to creating youth athletic programs in the city of Providence.

“It’s all about kids for him,” Ryan said.

At the backdrop of the naming proposal are both politics and personal issues for Jackson.

While all 15 members of the council are Democrats, Jackson is part of a faction– which now makes up the leadership team – that clashed with Yurdin during his tenure as majority leader between 2011 and 2014. The previous leadership initially blocked Aponte and Jackson from all of the council’s standing committees and Jackson led several unsuccessful attempts to remove Yurdin as majority leader.

At the same time, Jackson, who nearly lost his seat to an aggressive write-in campaign in 2014, has come under fire for failing to file 11 consecutive campaign finance reports with R.I. Board of Elections dating back to 2013. As a result, he owed the state $29,219 in fines as of Jan. 13, according to Richard Thornton, the board’s director of campaign finance.

Thornton also said the board has referred Jackson’s case to the attorney general. A spokeswoman for the attorney general told WPRI.com last week that the case is “still under review.”

Jackson said he knows the campaign fines are “stuff I have to deal with,” but he doesn’t believe it taints his record as a community leader.

“I’ve been doing this work for 37 years,” Jackson said. “I can get testimony after testimony from kids I’ve saved in this city.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this report incorrectly stated that Councilman Seth Yurdin has resigned from all council committees. He currently sits on the Committee on State Legislative Affairs.

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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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