March 13, 2005

Rhode Island Politics & Taxation, Part XI

This posting continues a periodic series on Rhode Island politics and taxation, building on ten previous postings (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X).

Arjay Miller, the former Dean of Stanford Business School, once offered this advice to aspiring executives:

Don't do anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the New York Times.

I was reminded of that quote when I read the article entitled "What was Rep. Fox doing in Portsmouth?" in today's ProJo:

The small group gathered on the waterfront for a tour of the proposed $100-million development.

In attendance were Democratic legislators representing Aquidneck Island districts -- Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva Weed, Sen. Charles Levesque and Representatives Raymond Gallison and Amy Rice.

Just one Portsmouth town official, Council President Mary Anne Edwards, had been notified. She was invited the day before.

"I don't know what the purpose of the tour was, to be honest," Edwards said later of the Feb. 4 gathering. "I don't know why we were there."

A representative of O'Neill Property Group, a Pennylvania company under contract to develop 150 acres along Portsmouth's western shore, led the tour along one of the state's last waterfronts available for development.

About an hour into the tour, House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, of Providence, arrived.

"It raised my eyebrows up 10 feet," Edwards said. "I don't know why he was there."

Two weeks later, Fox introduced House Bill 5688…

The bill provides a streamlined permitting process for the waterfront development and gives control of the project to a state commission.

No Portsmouth town official had asked for the legislation.

"It's one-stop shopping for permitting," Portsmouth's Edwards said. 'I'm so mystified by it. I don't know where the bill came from -- or who even told these [legislators] to do this. I certainly had nothing to do with it . . . It's confusing; it's confounding. Where's the pressure coming from?"

The Journal began looking at the bill last week, interviewing lawmakers and O'Neill representatives. Fox was questioned Thursday afternoon. Hours later, the bill was pulled…

O'Neill representatives approached the Portsmouth Town Council for the first time Feb 15. They asked for council support of their projects and legislation that would streamline the permitting process.

The council, wary of supporting such a broad proposal the same night it was introduced, scheduled a workshop to learn more about the plans and proposed legislation.

Two days later, before it could meet again, House Bill 5688 was introduced by Fox.

Some council members were furious.

"I think they have one heck of a nerve going over the Town Council's head," council president Edwards said of the state legislators…

House Bill 5688 would have created "the Portsmouth Waterfront Economic Development District" to be controlled by an independent commission with broad powers that would oversee development on the town's western shore. It was modeled after similar legislation approved in 2003 for East Providence's waterfront.

It is unclear who would sit on the commission and whether the group's authority would supercede the local council and zoning board…

That's exactly the kind of bill O'Neill Properties wants…

Fox acknowledges that House Bill 5688 would have helped O'Neill Properties Group…

Fox is the only legislator from that Feb. 4 gathering who has met J. Brian O'Neill, who heads O'Neill Properties Group…

O'Neill visited the majority leader in his office shortly after the February tour. The encounter was brief, Fox said, and nothing more than an introductory meeting…

Despite criticism of the Fox bill, Levesque said he would introduce a new version if the Portsmouth Town Council wants it.

Gallison said the same.

"[The withdrawal] doesn't stop the process, it just slows down the process," he said. "We'll let it go through the Town Council. When they're ready to put something in we'll do it again."

These actions followed shortly after the House leadership implemented new governance procedures that showed an astonishing lack of respect for the principles of democratic, open government.

Rhode Island residents: Watch out, your freedom continues to be at risk due to the actions of State House leaders.

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This, and the introduction of the bill last week to give collective bargaining agreements precedence over town charters, raised a question about the relationship between state and town government that you might know the answer to.

Are there any limits on the authority of the state legislature to usurp the power of city/town government, or can any simple-majority act of the legislature override a conflicting municipal ordinance?

Posted by: Andrew at March 13, 2005 9:52 PM