Council panel rejects Mayor Elorza’s pick to lead licensing department

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – It was clear prior to the start of Thursday’s City Council Finance Committee meeting that the panel was unwilling to support Mayor Jorge Elorza’s pick to run Providence’s licensing department.

But the public vetting process went forward anyway.

The result was a session of scrutiny unrivaled in recent city history followed by the committee’s unanimous vote to recommend Massachusetts-resident Tashi Hamilton not be named the city’s license administrator and registrar of vital statistics.

“I wish I could support your application, but I feel like we’re setting you up to fail” Councilwoman Sabina Matos told Hamilton shortly before making a motion to recommend the denial. The full council could still vote to select Hamilton for the job, but that scenario is unlikely.

Prior to the meeting, City Council leadership informed the administration the committee would not be supporting Hamilton for the job. Hamilton briefly left the committee room, but then returned to make her case for why she should be hired.

Robin Muksian, the city’s chief operating officers, initially asked the committee to postpone its discussion, but then allowed the vetting process to continue. She told the committee more than 20 individuals applied for the job to replace outgoing administrator Serena Conley, suggesting Hamilton was the top pick.

Hamilton, who works as a financial assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but said she would move to Providence for the job, said she is close to completing her bachelor’s degree at Lesley University. She said she manages 25 administrators in her current job, but later acknowledged she had no experience working with union members.

Councilman John Igliozzi, who chairs the committee, questioned Hamilton’s knowledge of the city, rattling off the names of several landmarks she acknowledged she wasn’t familiar with. Igliozzi said he would like to see Hamilton hired by the city, but suggested she wasn’t ready for the demanding position leading the licensing department.

“In the board of licenses, there’s no coaching over there,” Igliozzi said after chastising administration officials for whispering to Hamilton throughout the hearing.

Conley, who has led the department since 2008, earned $72,000 a year. She announced plans to retire earlier this year, but said she would remain in the position to train her successor.

The job can be thankless. The licensing department processes more than 8,000 business licenses each year, but it is most visible when it comes to violations involving bars and nightclubs. Although the five-member board of licenses is tasked with handling discipline, the license administrator is often caught in the middle of disputes between license holders and the quasi-judicial board.

Last 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.

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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