Salvatore, Matos squabble over Providence City Council committee assignments

Councilwoman Sabina Matos (left) and Council President David Salvatore (right).

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A dispute over appointees to three sleepy committees has turned into a turf war between different factions of the Providence City Council, with Councilwoman Sabina Matos claiming it is “illegal” for new Council President David Salvatore to undo decisions she made in her final days as acting president.

Matos’ appointees to the Committees on Claims and Pending Suits and City Property as well as the Special Committee on Municipal Operations and Oversight were scheduled to be received by the council at a meeting Jan. 4, but Salvatore has called a special meeting the day before to appoint his own selections to the committees.

“I think what he’s trying to do is illegal because the appointments were for the end of the term,” Matos, a Democrat from Ward 15, said. “If he’s able to do this, that means he’s able to change the chairman of Finance Committee and every other committee.”

Salvatore, the Ward 14 Democrat who was elected council president last week, said he is allowed to appoint his choices because “the appointments are required to be received by the council.”

The disagreement will likely come down to an interpretation of the City Council rules.

The rules allow the president to appoint members to all council committees, but they are silent on when the selections become official. Matos claims her appointees became committee members as soon as she submitted their names to the clerk’s office. Salvatore maintains the selections are final when received by the council.

Committee appointments are considered four-year terms, meaning the only way to make changes is if a councilor agrees to resign their position on a committee.

After Salvatore publicly claimed he had secured the eight council votes needed to become president but before his actual election to the leadership post, Matos named Ward 13 Councilman Bryan Principe to the Claims Committee, Ward 6 Councilman Michael Correia to the City Property Committee and Ward 11 Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris to the Municipal Operations and Oversight Committee.

At the special meeting, Salvatore plans to name Ward 3 Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune to the Claims Committee, Ward 5 Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan to the City Property Committee and Ward 8 Councilman Wilbur Jennings to the Municipal Operations and Oversight Committee.

The positions on each committee became available when Councilman Kevin Jackson was recalled from office in May.

The three committees in question are not considered high-profile panels, but the dispute over the appointments is indicative of a deeper divide between members of the all-Democratic council heading into their final year of the term.

The Claims Committee is required to sign off on most cases where the city is agreeing to issue a payment to an aggrieved party, such as a person whose car was damaged by a pothole. Nearly all of the committee’s decisions come at the recommendation of the city’s law department.

The City Property Committee has met just twice in the last two years. Its members are typically asked to sign off on any lease agreements or sales of city-owned property.

The Special Committee on Municipal Operations and Oversight was established in 2015, but has only met seven times over the last three years. Its only meeting in 2017 was to consider a resolution opposing the attempt by the operator of the proposed Burrillville power plant to purchase water from the Providence Water Supply Board through the town of Johnston.

Salvatore has said he wants to work with every member of the council, but two of three appointments – Ryan and Jennings – were supporters of his bid for the presidency. Both hold leadership positions within the council. LaFortune largely stayed out of the race for the president. Matos’ three appointees all opposed Salvatore becoming president.

Matos had been serving as acting president since May following the resignation of then-President Luis Aponte, who was charged with embezzling from his campaign account. Aponte has pleaded not guilty and remains a member of the council.

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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