Behind the scenes at City Hall, a race for council president is taking shape

Providence City Council chambers. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence City Council Finance Committee continued its vetting of the mayor’s proposed $734-million budget Thursday night, but some members of the all-Democrat council were preoccupied with a more pressing issue: what to do about their newly indicted president, Luis Aponte.

With Mayor Jorge Elorza and five councilors already calling for Aponte to step down as president, members of the council’s majority faction met privately Wednesday and Thursday to discuss their options, which range from sticking by their troubled leader until he makes a decision about his political future to joining their other colleagues in calling for a resignation.

Aponte, who has represented Ward 10 since 1999, was charged Wednesday with one count of embezzlement, one count of unlawful appropriation – both felonies – and two misdemeanor counts of misusing campaign funds, all stemming from a state police investigation into his campaign account that dates back to last year. He has pleaded not guilty.

As of Thursday evening, Aponte had not committed to resigning, according to several councilors. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Neither the Providence Home Rule Charter nor the rules of the City Council spell out a clear way to remove Aponte as president, and most members of the council appear to agree that he is eligible to remain president until the term ends next year.

But at least two councilors are already saying they intend to seek the presidency if Aponte does agree to resign: Council President Pro Tempore Sabina Matos and Councilman Nick Narducci.

Matos, a Dominican-born state employee who has represented Ward 15 in Olneyville since 2011, confirmed Thursday she would seek to replace Aponte if he gives up the post and suggested she has already lined up the necessary votes from colleagues to become the president. Her husband, Patrick Ward, was recently elected chairman of the Providence Democratic City Committee.

Narducci, who retired from the Narragansett Bay Commission in 2016 after suffering a stroke, has represented Ward 4 in the city’s North End since 2007. He received six votes for council president against Aponte in 2015. He has already called on Aponte to resign and confirmed he too is attempting to line up votes to be the next president. He said he is seeking the support of Elorza.

Here’s where things get tricky.

If Aponte does decide to resign, it’s not totally clear whether an election for president is required to be held. At the beginning of each council term, the president (in this case, Aponte) and president pro tempore (Matos) are elected to serve four-year terms in those roles. According to the city charter, the president pro tempore presides over the council in the event of any “absence” of the president.

The challenge is that neither the charter nor the rules of the council appear to clearly explain what happens if the council president’s position is vacated. The council rules state that if an applicable rule is not adopted, the council must look to Robert’s Rules of Order for guidance. In that case, it would appear that an election to fill the council presidency would need to be held.

The council president’s position has been vacated three times since 1984: twice due to Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr.’s resignations, and once following the death of Council President James A. Petrosinelli.

In 1984, following Cianci’s resignation after he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-wife’s lover, Council President Joe Paolino was elevated to mayor. President Pro Tempore Louis Stravato served as acting council president until February 1985, when the council finally elected Councilman Nicholas Easton its permanent president.

In June 1996, after Petrosinelli died, Evelyn V. Fargnoli was elected by her colleagues to serve as president until the term ended in 1998. Fargnoli was acting president for more than a year while Petrosinelli was sick.

In 2002, Council President John Lombardi was boosted to acting mayor when Cianci resigned following his racketeering charge in the Operation Plunder Dome investigation. In that case, Council President Pro Tempore Balbina Young became acting president for the rest of the term. The council never held a vote to make Young the permanent president. In January 2003, the council voted Lombardi in for another four-year term as president.

A spokesperson for Elorza confirmed Thursday the city law department is reviewing whether an election must be held if Aponte resigns.

The City Council is scheduled to meet again May 18. The next week will likely determine which councilor will control the gavel.

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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