Mayor Elorza survives political coup to keep control of donation fund

City clerks count votes for the Dexter Donation Fund. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – It was an election that would make even the late former City Councilman Lloyd Griffin blush.

More than 200 Providence residents – including many city employees – lined up in the City Council chambers Thursday to cast votes for control of a little-known board that donates thousands of dollars to city charities each year.

In the end, Mayor Jorge Elorza survived a mini political coup, as his endorsed slate of five candidates for the Dexter Donation Trust Fund’s board of commissioners squeaked past two outside factions to keep hold of the $2.2-million fund. (The board chooses how to distribute a portion of the money each year.)

Elorza’s handpicked team included state Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, Jordan Day, Alexandra Batista, Karen Scarcella and Prutha Patel. The only non-city employee on Elorza’s team was Patel. The mayor was among the first in line to vote.

Hundreds of Providence residents lined up to vote. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)
Hundreds of Providence residents lined up to vote. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

Facing a challenge from a slate of candidates organized by incoming Democrat state Sen. Ana Quezada and well-known Latino political operative Luis Estrada, as well as a separate group organized by former Dexter board member Dale Santos, Elorza’s team needed every vote it could muster.

For much of the two-hour voting period, numerous members of the mayor’s staff lobbied voters as they waited in line to fill out their ballot, handing out tiny printouts that included the names of the candidates Elorza was supporting.

Dozens of employees from across city government filtered into City Hall to cast their votes, with many acknowledging they were unaware of the Dexter Donation Trust Fund. By the time the votes were counted, 238 residents – participants weren’t required to be registered voters – had completed ballots. In 2014, only 119 residents voted.

Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for the city, said every city employee who took time to vote or monitor the election was required to obtain approval from their supervisor.

“The Dexter Donations and accompanying fund were set up to directly impact and support the most underserved populations in our city,” Elorza said in a statement following the election. “The funding from this generous trust, regardless of who has been in office, has always been used in this way.”

The Dexter Donation Fund is named after Ebenezer Knight Dexter, a wealthy businessman and former U.S. Marshal for Rhode Island who died in 1824. Upon his death, Dexter’s 40-acre neck farm on the East Side and another 10-acre tract of land in the West End were donated to the city. In exchange, Providence officials agreed to build an almshouse on the East Side, calling it the Dexter Asylum.

The city sold the asylum to Brown University in 1956 for just over $1 million, with the proceeds being used to establish the trust fund. (It is unclear why the fund requires an elected board.) With about $2.2 million currently in the account, the funds are invested by the city’s Board of Investment Commissioners, which also controls how the city’s pension fund is invested.

The vote count for the board of the Dexter Donation Fund.
The vote count for the board of the Dexter Donation Fund.

Each year, members of the board accept applications from dozens of Providence nonprofits and make donations based on the return on the fund’s investments. In 2016, the board gave out $92,500. A year earlier, it donated $270,000.

So why was there so much interest in such an obscure board? It depends on who you ask.

The mayor of Providence has long endorsed a slate of candidates and usually they have little competition. By having allies on the board, the mayor can ensure that he’ll have a voice in the donaton process.

The slate organized by Quezada and Estrada included Providence Board of Licenses member Johanna Harris, Gerard Catala, Pedro Espinal, Pedro Pichardo and Kerri Lynn Thurber. Harris has been a vocal critic of Elorza and recently received a small settlement from the city stemming from a lawsuit she filed last year.

The group preached transparency in the process, arguing that an election held between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. in City Hall every two years is no way to engage residents throughout the city. Estrada, who acknowledged he bused in residents to vote Thursday, said he wants the election moved out of City Hall in the future.

The other slate included Santos, a former city employee, Cecilia Arias, Mario Mancebo, Juan Pablo Goris and Joe “Joe Buck” Buchanan, a well-known figure in Democratic city politics for several decades.

Santos acknowledged Elorza’s attempt to keep control of the board is no different than any mayor in the past.

“Myself in the past, I was a city worker,” he said. “So if the mayor calls you and asks you to do something. What are you going to say, ‘no’? You’d be a fool.”

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