February 21, 2019

Rules for the Presiding Officer


To the Editor:

To me, as a member of the National Association of Parliamentarians, the role of presiding officer is a special trust. That trust is placed in the chair by the body’s members. The chair has every right to have views and take positions as a member of the body, but when exercising the role of presiding officer must carry out the rules impartially.

It is no secret that Mayor Briden's politics over the last several months are at odds with Counselors Botelho, Faria and Sousa. Mr. Briden both votes with Mr. Britto frequently and has donated to Mr. Britto's re-election campaign. However, having a deep respect for Mr. Briden, I was surprised at how he as politicized the role of the presiding officer and I can no longer simply overlook these actions.

During public comment, accusations were made against Councilman Faria. Mr. Faria was not allowed to respond, citing the ‘rule’ that there’s no response during public comment and then saying “the rules apply to everyone”.
I put rule in quotes because upon research, I cannot find that the rule exists. The rules of procedure read as follows: “VII. Public Comment. All persons wishing to make public comment shall sign a public comment sheet stating their name, address, and the subject of their comments. Said public comment sheet shall be available on a desk at the entrance of the City Hall Chambers no later than forty-five (45) minutes before the call to order of any regularly scheduled council meeting and shall be delivered by the City Clerk to the presiding officer no earlier than five (5) minutes before the call to order of the meeting. Each speaker will be limited to three (3) minutes. The order of speakers will be on a first come, first serve basis and the maximum time for public comment shall be limited to thirty (30) minutes per meeting.”

So if the rule is not there, maybe it’s an OMA issue? Nope, as Mr. Botelho pointed out early in the term the OMA does not prohibit response to public comments. RIGL 42-46-6 reads as follows: “(d) Nothing within this chapter shall prohibit any public body, or the members thereof, from responding to comments initiated by a member of the public during a properly noticed open forum even if the subject matter of a citizen's comments or discussions were not previously posted, provided such matters shall be for informational purposes only and may not be voted on except where necessary to address an unexpected occurrence that requires immediate action to protect the public or to refer the matter to an appropriate committee or to another body or official.”

So Mayor Briden was enforcing an imaginary rule to stop Mr. Faria from responding back to an allegation against him. Ok, maybe Mr. Briden was just under the false impression that there was a rule, despite it being clarified by Mr. Botelho earlier in the council term.

Except that the ‘rule’ has not been consistently enforced. In my public comment I noted that there was a meeting in June in which Jim Vincent, President of the Providence NAACP spoke in public comment. Mayor Briden allowed Mr. Chapman to respond to that public comment and bring up the HR Director, Fire Chief and IT Director. This is not the only time that this has happened either, Mr. Briden has himself responded to public comments by Nicholas Oliver among other instances of council and city manager comment.

Perhaps it would behoove Mr. Briden to look at enforcing this rule consistently “The presiding officer shall preserve order and decorum at all meetings of the City Council.” I am asked frequently why meetings get out of hand and it falls squarely on the Mayor. When Mr. Briden does gavel someone down, it is almost always Mr. Faria, and he allows his allies to continue. Mr. Faria has raised points of order that are routinely ignored by Briden. A point of order is supposed to stop debate and be ruled on by the chair before any further business is resumed. It also hasn't escaped my notice how much more calm and effective meetings are when Mr. Britto is presiding, despite his own opposition to Mr. Faria.

I often tell people to make sure to not interrupt the chair and to respect that position. However, when the chair is selectively enforcing imaginary rules to shift the debate to a particular side and refuses to act on points of order, members of the body can do little to ensure their right to be heard is not quashed.

Jason Desrosiers
East Providence


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