July 10, 2009

The Pervasive Structure of Rhode Island Corruption

Justin Katz

It would be the work of a lifetime of academic study to unravel the thread, but I've been increasingly impressed (in a bad way) with the intricacies of Rhode Island's structural corruption. It's as if certain principles of the culture filter throughout local society to create an organic network whose instinctual task is to create little pools of power and influence that political parasites can siphon and share.

Take, for example, local zoning regulations. A busy-body factor comes into play, as does a back-roads totalitarianism that seeks to freeze a town in time, but the effect of stringent permitting and zoning codes is to force individual approval (variances) of projects. When every change to one's property must be made "legal, non-conforming," a local board gains the power of arbitrary judgment; the projects are already contrary to the law, so the legal guidelines for arguing in their favor are limited, and the aesthetic and political guidelines are vague. It behooves residents, therefore, to have influential people around town think kindly of them, and it creates an advantage for, say, building contractors who have conspicuous success rates acquiring variances for their clients.

This story reeks of the insidious structure:

A Town Council proposal to expand the governing board of the Johnston Housing Authority from five members to seven has hit a roadblock in the General Assembly, where a key lawmaker says it appears the move is meant to "target someone" in a political squabble.

Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield, who heads the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government, on Thursday, June 25, refused to release the enabling legislation for a floor vote. The bill was introduced by Rep. Deborah Fellela, a Johnston Democrat — whose husband, Henry, swore at Tassoni after the chairman shelved her legislation.

"It's quite obvious after what I went through on Thursday that there's a vendetta in Johnston and I'm not going to be part of it," said Tassoni. He declined to say who might be the "target" of the legislation.

Obviously, Tassoni's declaration that he doesn't want "to be a part" of a "vendetta" in a town that he does not represent is nonsense. First of all, the way for him to have stayed out of the squabble would have been to step back from the proposal and let it move to a vote; by blocking it, he's made his action much more intrinsic to the outcome. More significantly, it makes for an incoherent thought to call the broadening of power a "vendetta" — whereas, shrinking the board would push somebody out — unless one is protecting the influence of an individual member and sees that heightened power as a right.

The question is, which of the Housing Authority's commissioners wields his or her influence in such a way that a state senator from another town has an interest in girding it? And what reciprocity might there be?

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The key question here is whether or not the bill was introduced at the request of town or was the Rep acting on her own.
If the town requested it Tassoni has no buisness blocking it.
Anyone know?

Posted by: Robert at July 11, 2009 3:39 PM

The linked Projo article makes it clear that the town council requested the change.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 11, 2009 3:44 PM
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