Two Major Defects in the 195 Redevelopment Commission Bill
The very large bill on developing the land freed-up by the relocation of Interstate 195 in Providence will be heard by the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government today. Since the amended 59-page bill replacing a 26-page original was released on a pre-long weekend Friday and isn’t linked at the GA website yet, let’s help our Senators with a review of a couple of serious defects in the amended bill that should prevent it from being passed in its current form. All legislative excerpts below are taken from the amended bill, which I will link to as soon as it appears in its proper location on the GA website.
Defect #1. The bill specifically tries to place the “I-195 Redevelopment Commission” — a body which will be making large dollar land-deals — beyond the reach of the State Ethics Commission, as well as other portions of state law.
The beginning of the proposed section 42-64.14-5 of the law reads…
The I-195 redevelopment district is hereby constituted an independent public instrumentality and body corporate and politic for the purposes set forth in this chapter with a separate legal existence from the city and from the state…Got that? The bill says that the Rhode Island state legislature will be creating a new government organ, but one that is not part of state or city government. This highly unusual proposition is intended to establish a claim that the Redevelopment Commission and its employees are exempt from important sections of state law. For the clearest and perhaps most important example of old law that the new law seeks to circumvent, consider how the new law would interact with the definition of jurisdiction contained in the Rhode Island Code of Ethics…
The following persons shall be subject to the provisions of the Rhode Island Code of Ethics in government:In other words, since the appointed Redevelopment Commissioners are not state or municipal officials — the law says that in so many words — the jurisdiciton of the Ethics Commission would not extend to them, nor is it clear that the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over the employees of boards, commissions and agencies covers the employees of an “independent public instrumentality and body corporate and politic”, especially when it is the Rhode Island Court system that would be making a final determination on this question. The proposed law also sets up its own set of very fuzzy ethics definitions to be applied to redevelopment commissioners (warning: this section is a little thick)…
(1) State and municipal elected officials;
(2) State and municipal appointed officials; and
(3) Employees of state and local government, of boards, Commissions, and agencies.
Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, it shall not be or constitute a conflict of interest for a director, officer, or employee of any financial institution, investment banking firm, brokerage firm, commercial bank, trust company, building-loan association, architecture firm, insurance company, or any other firm, person, or corporation to serve as a commissioner…The question that supporters of the bill need to answer is why, in order to help effectively dispose of the former I-195 land, does ethics oversight need to be loosened over a group of individuals who are politically connected enough to get appointed to a redevelopment commission, and who will be given the power to create “indirect” benefits for themselves through their work on that commission?
…nor shall any contract or transaction between the commission and a financial institution, investment banking firm, brokerage firm, commercial bank, trust company, building-loan association, architecture firm, insurance company, or other firm, person, or corporation be void or voidable by reason of that service as director of the commission.
If any commissioner, officer, or employee of the commission shall be interested either directly or indirectly, or shall be a director, officer, or employee of or have an ownership interest (other than as the owner of less than one percent (1%) of the shares of a publicly-held corporation) in any firm or corporation interested directly or indirectly in any contract with the commission, that interest shall be disclosed to the commission and set forth in the minutes of the commission, and the commissioner, officer, or employee having that ownership interest shall not participate on behalf of the commission in the authorization of that contract. Interested commissioners may be counted in determining the presence of a quorum at a meeting of the commission which authorizes the contract or transaction.
Defect #2: The amended version of the redevelopment bill specifies an electorate within the redevelopment district that is different from the usual definition of electorate under state law…
(e) Electors and elections. The electors of the district shall include electors of the city and/or owners of real property of the city and/or district ratepayers. In the event that exercise of any powers of the district requires approval by vote within the district, the commission shall have the power to organize and conduct such election in a manner consistent with requirements of law and in conjunction with the city, as necessary or appropriate.I can’t find in the amended bill exactly what election the electorate defined above is supposed to take part in, nor have I actually traced the fourteen page description of the proposed redevelopment district on a map (at one point, the legislation describes a segment of the boundary line that is 5.4 inches long), so I am not sure what the exact population of the “redevelopment district” currently is, but assuming that the boundary has been drawn around actually former highway land, there shouldn’t be many, if any, current residents there now. This implies that when an “election” is needed to approve something in the early phases of the project, the “electors” are likely to be mostly landowners and rate-payers who were allowed to get into the project early.
The Rhode Island Constitution does specify that elections are needed when the General Assembly wants to take direct action on certain local-impact issues…
The general assembly shall also have the power to act in relation to the property, affairs and government of a particular city or town provided that such legislative action shall become effective only upon approval by a majority of the qualified electors of the said city or town voting at a general or special election…A question that needs to be asked to Senator Ruggerio and other supporters of this bill is exactly what activities they anticipate needing de jure electoral approval for under their unique definition of the electorate — a definition which may restrict the “electorate” to just a few developer-type individuals.
Great analysis; great questions, Andrew.