Common Cause calls foul over obscure Providence election

Providence residents stand in line to vote in the Dexter Donation Fund election.
Providence residents stand in line to vote in the Dexter Donation Fund election.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence officials should have been more transparent about an election they held last week to choose a little-known board that controls more than $2 million in donation funds, according to one of Rhode Island’s leading good government groups.

Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion said Monday the city made little effort to inform Providence voters that an election for the Dexter Donation Trust Fund’s board of commissioners was being held for two hours in City Hall last Thursday, resulting in just 238 votes being cast.

“By not having a widely advertised election where you would have the normal sort of turnout, it makes it easier for people who might be trying to control the outcome,” Marion told Target 12.

Members of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s staff weren’t hiding their goal.

Elorza aides received approval from their supervisors to spend the afternoon encouraging voters to support a slate of five candidates endorsed by the mayor while they waited in line. Most city employees who live in Providence were also encouraged to vote.

“There a state law that says you can’t politic to the people in the line,” Marion said, referring to traditional local elections. “You have to be 50 feet away from the polling place.”

Members of Mayor Elorza's staff handed out cards with the names of the candidates he was supporting.
Members of Mayor Elorza’s staff handed out cards with the names of the candidates he was supporting.

In the end, Elorza’s state – state Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, Jordan Day, Alexandra Batista, Karen Scarcella and Prutha Patel – narrowly defeated two other slates of candidates backed by outside factions attempting to shake up the board. The only non-city employee on Elorza’s team was Patel.

In a statement Monday, Elorza spokesperson Emily Crowell said the city posted the election in the secretary of state’s office, on Providence’s open meeting portal and in City Hall. She said the meeting was also advertised in The Providence Journal. Still, a press release to the media was issued just one day before the election.

Crowell said the 2 p.m. Thursday election can only be changed by an amendment to the city ordinance that established the Dexter Donation Fund board.

The 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.

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.

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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