Warwick city leaders must be thankful that the national media attention focused on Monday’s Car Tax Protest didn’t include a description on the tactics employed by Mayor Scott Avedisian’s administration that spared no expense to make it as difficult as possible for citizens to participate in the legislative process with City Council members.
One would have thought they were in the midst of an all out prison break with the number of armed uniform and undercover plain clothes police officers and fire department officials surrounding the entrances to City Hall and roaming throughout the crowd.
While I can understand the reasoning for some law enforcement crowd control presence, during the four-year protracted teacher contract negotiations while I was on the School Committee, I cannot recall having as much law enforcement personnel present during more emotionally charged school committee meetings in school auditoriums with crowd capacity more than twice that of City Hall.
At a time when city leaders are imposing this unfair car tax on residents, shouldn’t they be watching every penny to control expenses? How much did this presence cost taxpayers or detract from other work that could have been performed?
Typically City Council committee meetings are held in a cramped downstairs basement conference room with a capacity of 49 people. Fire Department officers were present with a hand held clicker limiting access to the room ensuring the capacity was not exceeded. One citizen was so incredulous at the procedure he left, complaining to me that he felt like he was standing outside a nightclub waiting for the bouncer to let him enter. He asked me, “Why would they do this?”
Rob Cote, who has to be credited with organizing the event, was finally able to enter the room and thereby requested that all committee meetings move upstairs in the full council chambers. Councilors Raymond Gallucci (D), Donna Travis (D) and Steve Colantuono (R), members of the Finance Committee, refused the motion.
The fact is, city leaders knew a large presence of taxpayers would be present at City Hall. They specifically planned for it and could have subsequently planned to hold committee meetings in full council chambers so taxpayers could participate in the process. Their contempt for the taxpayer was intentional and obvious.
Meanwhile, more than 150 citizens sat patiently in the council chambers listening to citizen activists, including me, provide them with a civics lesson on the municipal budget and why the car tax wasn’t necessary if the mayor and council had the courage to enact measures to cut spending and level fund the city budget as they did for the school budget.
At the start of the formal council meeting, Council President Bruce Place (D) informed the audience that he was aware of the citizens’ desire to have a public hearing on the car tax issue but council rules prohibited him from allowing it. Last year during a council meeting, Mr. Place suspended the council rules to allow high school students an unscheduled opportunity to speak on the potential elimination of school sports. At one point, Mr. Place agitated the crowd further by stating condescendingly, “If people don’t understand what the rules are, they shouldn’t be playing the game.”
What Mr. Place didn’t tell the audience is that as council president, he has the authority to call a special council meeting on any subject, provided he gives 48 hours notice and it is properly posted in accordance with open meetings laws. If Mr. Place was truly concerned with the desire of the taxpayers for a public hearing, he would have made that announcement to the crowd.
Instead, before the meeting began, Councilman Joe Solomon (D), who was instrumental in persuading the council not to impose the car tax last year, along with Councilman Steve Merolla (D) and Councilman Charles Donovan (D), who voted against the car tax this year, told the crowd they would docket a resolution requesting the public hearing in September.
While the six council members, including Councilwoman Carmille Vella-Wilkinson (D), who supported the car tax, hurriedly got up from their seats to go back to the downstairs conference room for executive session, Councilman John DelGiudice (D) mocked the crowd, waving the peace sign to them as he exited the chamber. Councilmen Solomon, Merolla and Donovan received a standing ovation for remaining in their seats in support of the citizens.
The message sent was quite clear. City leaders didn’t give a damn about listening to their constituents or the detrimental effect that the car tax is having on their household budget.
Warwick citizens, however, for a brief moment, took back City Hall. Next year, they need to send a stronger message by electing new leadership that will bend over backward to listen to their concerns instead of doing everything possible to lock down City Hall and ignore them.
Robert Cushman (Cushmanr@cox.net) is a former Warwick City Councilman and former School Committee Chairman.