Why Mayor Elorza thinks he’s ‘changing the narrative’ about Providence

From left to right, Providence finance director Larry Mancini, Mayor Jorge Elorza and chief operating officer Robin Muksian. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Ask any member of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s staff how they know their boss approves of the work they’re doing and they’ll all tell you the same thing.

He “hearts” them on Asana, the project management app he requires his aides to use as they track every task in the city, from meetings with constituents to preparing infographics that showcase his accomplishments. The heart is similar to a “like” on Facebook, but when it comes from the mayor, it means more.

Two years into his first term leading Rhode Island’s capital city, Elorza can rattle off dozens of significant achievements he believes residents should “heart,” from eliminating 85% of the city potholes to completing park renovations and a restructuring of the school department’s central office.

But the 40-year-old Democrat acknowledges the city is still staring at the same challenges his predecessors railed about for years, including $1.9 billion in unfunded pension and health care liabilities for retirees, and schools that have been underperforming since before he attended them 30 years ago.

As he prepares for year three, Elorza is seeking to remind residents that he’s following through on an inauguration pledge to build a city “that just works” while he also works to assure state leaders that he understands a sense of urgency is needed when it comes to Providence’s structural problems.

“Bringing the city into the 21st century is no small task,” Elorza said during a wide-ranging recent interview in his City Hall office. “That’s a major, major challenge.

Finding his footing

As Elorza sees it, being mayor has two key components: you have to be an effective manager of more than 4,000 city employees, and you need to be the “cheerleader in chief,” which involves endlessly promoting the city in an effort to boost its profile and generate new jobs.

Elorza calls himself “very demanding” of his top aides (nearly all of whom are women, a fact he is proud of). He’s known for constantly monitoring the Asana app and will pepper his staff with follow-up questions to ensure even the most menial tasks aren’t forgotten.

He points to that level of diligence as a significant culture change in city government, particularly in departments that have the most direct impact on residents.

He said public works department employees are “doing more with the same resources,” filling the vast majority of potholes in the city. He calls the recreation department “buzzing” with dozens of new programs that director Mike Stephens has implemented over the last two years. His parks department has renovated 22 public parks since last year.

“We want people in the community talking positively, talking well of the city,” Elorza said. “But it has to be based on something and it has to be real.”

On the cheerleading side, Elorza has made sure to stand close to Gov. Gina Raimondo during a recent stretch of major announcements regarding Johnson & JohnsonVirgin Pulse and General Electric’s digital software division all bringing new jobs to the city. The Wexford Science & Technology innovation complex on the former I-195 land is also moving forward.

During public appearances these days, Elorza frequently tells crowds his team is “changing the narrative” about Providence from a city that has too often been labeled corrupt or dysfunctional to one where there is “vibrancy on the ground.” He points to the PVD Fest arts festival as a reason why people want to come to Providence and to increased property values as a sign they want to live here.

And the mayor is hinting that more announcements are on the horizon. Although he refused to provide too many details, he said an out-of-state company was recently looking to move to Boston, but reached out to him about coming to Providence instead.

“People want to be here in the city,” Elorza said “And so that feeds off of itself. This buzz about what’s happening in Providence. It’s contagious.”

Significant challenges ahead

But as Elorza swipes through his Asana app, many of Providence’s most significant challenges aren’t close to completion.

For the city to truly undergo the resurgence he talked about during his State of the City address last February, the mayor says officials must address its long-term financial woes and turn around the school system.

So how will he accomplish these tasks?

Critics of Elorza say he fixates on smaller solutions while remaining in a perpetual planning phase when it comes to tackling the larger problems. Rather than crafting a plan for addressing the city’s $1.9 billion in unfunded retirement obligations, he engaged in a year-long war with the firefighters’ union that focused on excessive overtime costs, but not pensions.

Elorza, of course, disagrees. He takes credit for “bringing to light” some of the financial details about the city that are common knowledge today. He points to his battle with the firefighters as an example of his willingness to make changes. For decades, he said, mayors have tried to reduce minimum manning in the fire department. A new contract that he’ll sign into law in January cuts the numbers of firefighters required to be on the job at all times from 94 to 88.

When it comes to retirees, he said his office has been “laying the groundwork for a grand bargain” for more than a year, although a committee he formed to discuss retiree obligations has had just one meeting, according to a spokesperson for the mayor.  It’s unclear if any retirees are members of the committee. Tom Johnston, the president of the Providence Police and Firefighter’s Retirement Association, told Eyewitness News he has never been contacted by the city.

Elorza he said his goal is to reach an agreement that won’t require the next mayor to return to retirees with his hand out. He said one option could be freezing retiree cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), until the pension system is 80% or 90% funded – it’s currently at 27% – but he acknowledged he’s open to negotiations.

“What we can’t compromise on is something has to be done,” Elorza said, though he maintains that filing for bankruptcy is “not an option” for the city.

State leaders, including Raimondo, are keeping a close on eye on what he’ll do in the next year. The governor has said she agrees Providence is not currently in a position to go bankruptcy, but stressed that city leaders “can’t do nothing.”

“So what I think is it’s time for the mayor to start making difficult decisions around where he can cut, not just keep raising taxes,” she said in a recent interview.

On schools, Elorza acknowledged that Providence students have struggled for generations, but said “things are different now,” pointing to his well-liked Supt. Chris Maher. He said Maher is the first superintendent to send his own children to Providence public schools in many years.

Elorza said his decision to restructure the school department’s central office to move more clerks into school buildings shows another example of his willingness to challenge the status quo. He said Providence has been tapped by the Harvard Graduate School of Education as one of six cities to redesign education reform in the country.

But for someone who has said he wants be known as the mayor who turned around Providence’s schools, Elorza is short on details when it comes to actual changes he’d like to make.

Although the Providence Teachers Union contract expires in 2017, he declined to provide a significant change he’d like to see in the agreement. He said he wants to improve parent and stakeholder engagement in the city, an issue experts suggest is a key factor in the reason charter schools like Achievement First have shown success. The city is also planning an education summit in 2017.

“There is no one game changer,” Elorza said. “There is no one decision or even a series of decisions that we can make where people will think ‘yes, we did it.’”

He continued: “But we don’t have 20 years to wait for results or for engagement and inspiration.”

Eight years is not enough

As he tries to solve the city’s problems, Elorza said he realizes the clock is ticking.

He intends to run for re-election in 2018, and while it appears likely he’ll face a challenge in the Democratic primary, he will be a heavy favorite to return to City Hall. Providence voters haven’t unseated an incumbent mayor since 1974, the year Buddy Cianci was first elected. Elorza’s healthy campaign war chest – currently $286,579 – could also be a factor.

“From day one I’ve always felt time is running out,” he said. “Eight years is just not enough time to do what we want to do.”

He also knows that politics is all about relationships, and he lost two key ones this year.

Former House Majority Leader John DeSimone was the mayor’s first call when he needed something at the State House and outgoing Rep. John Carnevale was a fierce supporter of the city’s interests. (DeSimone was stunned by Democrat Marcia Ranglin-Vassell in his primary, and Carnevale did not run for re-election following a residency scandal.)

But Elorza said he isn’t shaken by the loss of two of his best advocates. He maintains that the representatives and senators he talks to are “trusting the city as a partner.”

“I think it’s fair to say we have as strong of a relationship with folks at the State House as we’ve ever had,” Elorza said.

The mayor also said he’s not frustrated by occasional run-ins with the City Council, which criticized his contract with the firefighters and killed his plan to borrow millions of dollars for infrastructure projects this year. Elorza accused the council of trying to create “slush funds” with the infrastructure bond, but council leadership labeled his administration fiscally irresponsible.

Council President Luis Aponte acknowledged his members have more disagreement with Elorza in his second year, but made it clear he believes the two branches of government are still on the same page on most issues.

“A family can all agree on where to go for a vacation, but that doesn’t mean they all have to agree on how to get there,” Aponte said.

Elorza, a self-described “eternal optimist,” said says he’s too busy to let issues he can’t control phase him. He joked that his girlfriend, outgoing Central Falls Councilwoman Stephanie Gonzalez, tells him he is always smiling he when he gets home at night.

“I never have a bad day,” Elorza said.

In other words, he hearts his job.

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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