Mayor Elorza plans audit, shakeup of Providence liquor board

From left to right, Providence Board of Licenses members Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan, Sen. Juan Pichardo and Luis Peralta. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Three months after the Providence City Council released a scathing report about the powerful Providence Board of Licenses, Mayor Jorge Elorza is hiring an outside firm to audit the oft-criticized panel and its department.

Elorza has also nominated Providence attorney Dylan Conley to the paid five-member board to replace Johanna Harris, who has been a vocal critic of the mayor since he took office last year.

In a request for proposals issued last week, the city said the scope for the audit “shall be performance-based but include financial reconciliation of outstanding fines/penalties and the timeliness of collection.” The firm hired to conduct the audit is expected to release a final report that will “outline concerns, successful practices, areas which have shown improvement and recommendations for future improvement.”

“This audit is a part of the administration’s ongoing efforts to improve and streamline business in the city of Providence,” Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for the mayor, told Eyewitness News. “The audit will evaluate the entire department and board operations, transactions and procedures.”

In September, former Attorney General Jeffrey Pine released a 13-page evaluation of the board claiming it lacks “consistency and uniformity” in its handling of violations and penalties, struggles with recordkeeping and occasionally violates state open meetings laws.

Pine, whose firm was hired by the City Council, also recommended the mayor stop appointing elected officials to the board.

Conley, 29, is the son of state Sen. William Conley, an East Providence Democrat.  (He is not related to Serena Conley, who runs the licensing department.)

A graduate of Boston College and Florida State University College of Law, Conley works for his father’s law firm and serves as adjunct professor and advisor at Roger Williams University, according to a resume provided by the city. He occasionally pens op-eds for the Providence Journal.

Elorza has also reappointed Charles Newton to the board. Other members include Chairman Sen. Juan Pichardo, Vice-Chair Charles Newton, Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan and Luis Peralta.

It was no surprise that Harris was not asked to return after serving a three-year term. Tapped by former Mayor Angel Taveras to replace well-known insider Andrew Annaldo as chair of the board, Harris clashed with city officials and attorneys throughout her tenure as she attempted to professionalize the licensing process. Harris was replaced as chair when Elorza took office, but remained on the board.

Earlier this year, the city agreed to pay Harris $18,000 to cover legal fees she accrued while she successfully defended herself against a Rhode Island Ethics Commission investigation.

Commissioners for the licensing board are nominated by the mayor but must be confirmed by the City Council. Board members $19,713 a year – the chairman makes $26,850 – and generally meet about three times each week. The panel processes more than 8,000 licenses each year and handles disciplinary matters, such as underage drinking or fighting in bars.

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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