How the Providence City Council could strip President Aponte of his power

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When seven members of the Providence City Council called for a special meeting to vote “no confidence” in Council President Luis Aponte last week, their thinking was clear: if they showed Aponte that his supporters on the council were no longer with him, he would have to resign.

But as the weekend crept into Monday morning, Aponte became more defiant. With no deal in place with prosecutors over his indictment on charges related to his alleged misuse of campaign funds, his lawyer opposed a resignation. Aponte’s supporters in the community were rallying behind him, urging him to stay put.

By the time Aponte showed up for his press conference outside the Washington Park Library on Broad Street Monday afternoon, few thought he would be stepping down. The event felt more like a campaign kickoff than a political funeral. And Aponte vowed to remain president.

The City Council moved forward anyway. With Aponte presiding over the meeting, rival factions within the legislative body came together to vote “no confidence” in their leader and urge him to resign. Aponte voted no. One councilor abstained. (The 15th seat on the council is vacant because Councilman Kevin Jackson was recalled two weeks ago.)

So if 80% of the City Council wants Aponte to resign, what options does the body have? Here’s an overview.

Aponte was elected to a four-year term as president.
The mayor and all 15 members of the City Council are elected by voters to serve four-year terms. In this case, Providence’s elected officials – who all happen to be Democrats – won their elections in 2014 and began serving on Jan. 5, 2015, with a completion date of Jan. 7, 2019.

The first vote taken by the City Council in the current term was to elect a president. The council voted 9-6 in favor of Aponte. Councilwoman Sabina Matos was then voted council president pro tempore.

There is no language in the Providence Home Rule Charter that declares the top two leadership positions to be four-year terms. And there is nothing in the City Council’s rules that says the posts must be four years either. But before the council votes on its leadership, it is made clear that the president and president pro tempore positions are for the entire four-year term.

The council could put Aponte on trial.
When the charter and the rules of the City Council are silent on a specific issue, the charter states that the council must be governed by “Robert’s Rules of Order,” the famed guide to parliamentary procedure first published in the 1870s (it’s now in its 11th edition).

Robert’s Rules does not outline an impeachment process – and the council doesn’t have one either – but it does have a trial process that would allow the council to begin an investigation into Aponte’s charges. The matter would initially need to be referred to an investigatory committee created by the council and then the committee would be required to make a recommendation. Then a trial could be held and the council would have the power to expel Aponte.

The council could change its rules.
The Providence City Council hasn’t amended its rules since 2007, which means the majority of the members are operating under bylaws set before they were elected to office. The 14-page rulebook is fairly basic, outlining council docket deadlines and procedural issues such as motions or how meetings should run. The rules are silent on a term length for the council president, but they do require that committee assignments come with a four-year term. In other words, if you’re appointed to the Finance Committee, you can’t be removed from the committee just because the chairman doesn’t like how you vote.

But changes can be made to the rules as long as the majority of the City Council is on board. That means the council could set a rule that allows for the president to be voted out by his colleagues, although it would likely need to have some provisions attached to not allow the council presidency to change hands every time eight members become upset with their leader. The council could also create a suspension policy that would allow the president to be suspended for certain reasons, like an indictment.

The current Council Rules Committee includes Aponte, Matos and Councilors Terry Hassett and John Igliozzi. (Councilman Jackson was also on the committee before he was recalled.)

The council could pass new ordinances stripping the presidency of its power.
In the 1990s, there was an effort led by former Councilman Joe DeLuca to zero out then-Mayor Buddy Cianci’s office budget. The move, supporters argued, would have left Cianci unable to pay his staff. There were even questions about whether Cianci would be able to draw a salary if there was no money in his budget. The attempt failed because it didn’t have enough support on the council, but the message was clear: if the council can find the votes, it has plenty of power.

In Aponte’s case, there are currently 12 council members calling on him to resign. That’s more than enough to sideline Aponte or pass a new ordinance that renders him powerless. In fact, after Councilman Jackson was arrested last year, Councilman Sam Zurier introduced an amendment to the city’s ethics code that would require any councilor who is indicted to be removed from all committees and leadership positions until the charges are withdrawn or dismissed. If Zurier’s measure had been approved last year, Aponte would have been forced to step aside last week. Instead, however, it has languished in committee.

The council could boycott future meetings.
This is the nuclear option. With this many councilors opposing Aponte, they could simply refuse to attend future council meetings, bringing city business to a standstill. The problem with this option, of course, is there would be unintended consequences. The mayor’s proposed budget is currently making its way through the council, and it needs to be approved by June so the tax bills can go out on time. The city also has its federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) budget that needs to be approved and sent to the federal government. If that document isn’t approved, the city – and nonprofits that depend on the money – could lose out on millions of dollars in federal grants.

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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