LEOBOR amended going to governor’s desk

Posted 6/12/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: After an update of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights recently got close to the finish line, there was 0.0% chance that legislative leaders wouldn’t get it …

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LEOBOR amended going to governor’s desk


STORY OF THE WEEK: After an update of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights recently got close to the finish line, there was 0.0% chance that legislative leaders wouldn’t get it over the finish line. A LEOBOR bill amended Thursday to make clear that body cam footage of minor police violations can be released via public records request cleared both chambers on lopsided votes. Critics, led by Sens. Tiara Mack (D-Providence) and Jonathan Acosta (D-Central Falls), maintained the bill was seriously flawed since, they said, it could take years to fire an officer who uses lethal force in violation of their department’s own policy. In the Senate, Judiciary Chairwoman Dawn Euer (D-Newport) pushed back, saying that changing the legislation to address that concern could violate due process. Two of the groups that raised concern on the body cam issue, the RI ACLU and Common Cause of Rhode Island, offered a mixed grade for what emerged from the House and the Senate on LEOBOR, via statement: “We appreciate the Senate’s action in amending the bill to eliminate the House version’s ban on public access to body camera footage involving so-called minor incidents of police misconduct. At the same time, by also tying public access to Attorney General regulations, we believe this amendment could allow future restrictions on access to body camera footage. For example, the regulations could be revised to prohibit access in circumstances where the open records law allows, but does not require, release. Our organizations will remain vigilant as LEOBOR reform is implemented, but we are hopeful that departments, and the Attorney General, will operate in as transparent a manner as possible when it comes to public access to police body camera footage.” Gov. Dan McKee plans to sign the bill in the near future.

SHOW US THE MONEY: Brown University and the University of Rhode Island -- the top private and public universities in the state -- have been steadily ramping up their level of research. That’s no small issue. The heft of having Harvard and MIT down the street from one another has made Massachusetts the envy of many a state. Here in Rhode Island, the National Science Foundation ranked URI 158th in R&D spending by American universities as of 2022. URI President Marc Parlange said the university is working to develop partnerships with the public and private sector, in part with an emphasis on the blue economy and life sciences, the latter the subject of an $80 million bond question to be decided by voters in November. Although North Carolina’s Research Triangle is seen as a growing competitor for the vaunted life sciences sector in Boston/Cambridge, Parlange insisted that Rhode Island is not too late to the game. “Our collaborations with our colleagues across the state are very important,” he said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “And it’s also interesting -- a lot of the key startups that are coming are really in the life sciences area, started by, actually, faculty and students from the University of Rhode Island.” Brown is building its own life sciences building and the sixth floor at Point 225, aka the CIC building, opened with wet labs earlier this year. Former Gov. Gina Raimondo talked a lot about innovation, and Rhode Island still faced familiar challenges by the time when she departed in 2021. But university-based research is a proven economic catalyst, so that offers some hope.

ACADEMIA: It’s not just congressional Republicans who are heaping scorn on American colleges and universities. In a recent column on how our society has lost its moorings, NYT columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote, “Many universities today seem to be in the grip of a progressive ideological framework that divides the world into hierarchies of colonizers and the colonized, oppressed and oppressors, racists and anti-racists — and now Zionists and anti-Zionists.” Comedian Bill Maher has a similar view. Not surprisingly, President Parlange sees the issue differently. URI, he said, “is really a community of scholars. There’s a lot of generosity. We’ve had, what I would say is, an extremely safe and welcoming environment ... We have had very good discussions where people have different points of view, but we’ve been able to pull together as a community from many, many different groups, you know, student groups. And I will include Hillel, the Middle Eastern student association, the South Asian student club, the young social democratic club. Many students have come together to be able to actually wrestle with some of the thorny and difficult questions of our time … I think that actually a university is an important place where we really foster serious thinking and research.”

THE BUDGET: The Rhode Island House of Representatives is discussing Friday the $13.9 billion spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1. Here’s my look at what happened: You know it’s a low-drama session when the debate is over whether the budget marathon will end before dinner. Looking ahead, this spending plan will likely be remembered as the bridge between the flush times of bountiful federal COVID aid and the more typical Rhode Island experience of perennial deficits that crimp other forms of investment.

BIG DECISION: Next week is a significant one for healthcare in Rhode Island. Attorney General Peter Neronha and the state Department of Health are expected to make a midweek decision on the proposal by the Centurion Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit to buy CharterCARE Health Partners. CharterCARE, owned by Prospect Medical Holdings of California, operates Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence. Both hospitals have been losing money for years and a pending lawsuit by Neronha accuses Prospect of falling $24 million behind in paying vendors. As I reported for RIPBS Weekly and The Public’s Radio, there are a lot of questions about Centurion’s proposal, including whether it would save the hospitals from possible bankruptcy.

WHEN BUSINESS TALKS: House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said during the House Finance budget briefing last week that he has no intention of being the speaker who lost Citizens Bank. That assurance notwithstanding, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President Laurie White sent an email Thursday with the subject line, “URGENT: Keep Citizens in RI – Collective Course Correction and Urgency Needed.” While expressing satisfaction that the different sides are working in what she called a transparent and collaborative way, White also cited concern: “We have a bit of a disconnect here on what is required in the post-pandemic era to be a pro-business state --- one that cares about its top private employers and building career opportunities for parents and families. The current back-and-forth between Citizens Bank and our state’s policy makers over how to be “aggressive and intentional” about keeping an employer with 4,200 jobs in Rhode Island needs a course correction coupled with a high sense of urgency.” Shekarchi slammed the brakes on Citizens’ quest for a tax change that it says would put Rhode Island on an equal footing with Massachusetts mostly since it came late in the legislative session -- a move that Rep. Brian C. Newberry (R-North Smithfield) called political malpractice. “Going in at the last hour and saying we’d like you to basically pass a tax cut for banks, I don’t care who you are, what party you’re a part of, whatever, that’s not an easy sell to people, even if it’s the right policy,” Newberry said during an interview this week. “And I think it’s a residue, frankly, and I told the Citizens people this directly, it’s a residue of the habit in this state of some of the big institutions -- I’m not trying to pick on Citizens, they’re exhibit A in this instance, but this could apply to any number of large companies -- of believing that, you know, they can just go straight to whoever the governor is, or whoever sits in the third floor, I mean the speaker, the Senate President, and get what they want done if they want something. That’s not the way it works anymore.”

PENSION: The 2011 pension overhaul that made Gina Raimondo a rising star -- while infuriating a lot of teachers, public employees and retirees -- brings to mind William Faulkner’s quote about how “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Anger about the suspension of cost of living adjustments simmered for years. It wasn’t enough to galvanize broad support for candidates like Matt Brown for governor in 2018 or Spencer Dickinson for CD1 in 2023. But those upset by the pension changes were persistent enough to get the General Assembly last year to direct General Treasurer James Diossa to conduct a study. And while the details are complex, the House version of the budget includes money for the upset pensioners. In one sign of how pensions haven’t completely lost their political voltage, Diossa, who quickly sounded a warning about how the move would cause hundreds of millions more in unfunded liability, hastened to say that he supports the initiative.

ON THE MOVE: Emily Howe, formerly executive director of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, is succeeding Jed Thorp (who is moving to Save The Bay) as state director of Clean Water Action … The top comms official at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Sofiya Cabalquinto, starts next month as RISD’s chief marketing and communications officer … Roger Williams University Law professor Tara Allen has been named as the next federal public defender for Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire …. Bethany Jenkins, a longtime faculty member at URI, has been appointed VP for research and economic development at the university … Jackie Anderson, who challenged Joe Shekarchi for rep as a Democrat in 2022, is running for Warwick City Council … Lifespan named Sarah Frost as chief of hospital operations and president of Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

TAKE OF THE WEEK: KEVIN MATTA, senior director of people and culture for United Way of Rhode Island: “For years, United Way of Rhode Island has been centering equity in all that we do, from our grantmaking and strategic initiatives, to our hiring practices and community engagement. We are leading the charge in encouraging Rhode Islanders to join us in demonstrating their commitment to the concepts of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion with this year’s new Equity Challenge. Beginning on Juneteenth (6/19) and continuing until June 27, the challenge is a seven-day learning journey that, at its core, is a DEI training for individuals, families, businesses, nonprofits -- for everyone. Access to this learning is disparate across the state and too many people depend on their organizations to invest tens of thousands of dollars to curate training around these key competencies. That is why we’re removing barriers to traditional access and offering our Equity Challenge at no cost. Individuals who participate can earn a certificate, and organizations whose employees participate are eligible to be recognized as an Organization Champion of Equity. We’re asking you to give just 30-minutes a day to help foster a culture of belonging in the state we all love. Join us.”

IT CAME FROM THE NEWSROOM: The Public’s Radio won a handful of mostly first-place awards from the Public Media Journalists Association. Our series on Rhode Island’s housing crisis bested for continuing coverage, while Ben Berke scored for his revealing look at the shortcomings of internal affairs investigations in Fall River, Lynn Arditi for an examination of a wrongful arrest in Woonsocket, and yours truly for my look at how a local website offers a portal into a world of election deniers and conspiracy theorists.

SWEPT AWAY: Easton’s Beach, the only public beach in Newport, is being steadily eroded. My colleague Olivia Ebertz looks at whether the beach should be saved. 

TRUMPIFIED: In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s conviction on state charges in New York, most of Rhode Island’s GOP establishment has lined up squarely behind the former president. In a statement, RI GOP Chairman Joe Powers called the verdict “a part of what President Trump has accurately described as a 'witch hunt. This relentless pursuit of President Trump is an attempt to undermine his achievements and distract from the real issues facing our nation.” One of the rare local Republican officials not toeing the party line is RI GOP National Committeeman Steve Frias, who told the ProJo’s Kathy Gregg, "Our legal system is not perfect, but it is not rigged. I am not going to attack judges, whether they are a New York state court judge or a United States Supreme Court justice. I believe in the rule of law, period." As it stands, the RI GOP holds just 14 of 113 seats in the General Assembly. The presidential vote in November will elevate turnout, but the departure of three GOP incumbents from the House (Reps. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung of Cranston, Patricia Morgan of West Warwick and Brian Rea of Smithfield) will not make it any easier to expand the Republican presence on Smith Hill.  

WESTERLY: As first reported by my colleague Alex Nunes, a town councilor flipped off the audience and made what was considered an obscene gesture. The councilor, Robert Lombardo,  “did not respond directly to a call and voicemail Tuesday requesting an interview about Monday night’s meeting. Instead he sent photos of a seemingly unrelated sprinkler system to The Public’s Radio and a text message that read, ‘Those sprinklers have been on since early this morning. Last week they went on all day and all night.’ ”

MEDIA I: Rest in Peace, ProJo alum Tom Mulligan, who recently died at 73. As former ProJo reporter Brian C. Jones writes in his Dangerous Times blog, “When Tom was at the Journal, he was part of an actual dynasty that included some of the newspaper’s most talented men and women. Irene [Wielawski], whom Tom met at the paper, was the Journal’s award-winning medical writer; Tom’s brother, John E. Mulligan, was the paper’s Washington bureau chief. The circle was completed when Tony Lioce, the paper’s legendary columnist and music writer, married Janet Cusick, and John Mulligan married Janet’s sister, Nancy.”

MEDIA II: The Washington Post has a storied past. Woodward and Bernstein will be forever remembered for breaking the Watergate story and the Post was one of the institutions examined in David Halberstam’s classic media analysis/history The Powers That Be. Over the years, the Post has attracted such ProJo alums as Chris Rowland and the paper was initially on the upswing after Jeff Bezos acquired it (for $250 million). More recently, the paper has been bleeding money and readers, and top editor Sally Buzbee just made her exit. According to media critic Dan Kennedy, “For the second time since he bought it in 2013, Jeff Bezos is faced with the challenge of reinventing The Washington Post. He succeeded spectacularly the first time, with years of growth, profitability and influence. This time, though, he’s doing it with people he chose himself — and there are caution signs all over the place.”

KICKER: While Rhode Island has moved slowly in approaching the awarding of additional retail marijuana licenses, you need not be a Wharton grad to realize that cannabis shops are extremely lucrative. According to CCRI, jobs in the local cannabis sector doubled from 2022 to 2023. With this opportunity in mind, the community college is offering a free state-funded eight-week program to train up to 15 people for possible employment in the field. “The question of how people are supposed to learn skills about jobs that didn’t exist legally in a highly-regulated industry always puzzled me,” one of the instructors for the class, Jacob Carlson, said in a news release. “How are legal cannabis businesses supposed to find trained employees? That’s why this partnership with CCRI makes sense for us at EzHire Cannabis. We are seeing more need for entry-level workers, which aligns well with community college programs, both from a cost and training level.”

Donnis, politics, LEOBOR


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