NEWS

Council overrides diversity panel veto

Posted 5/26/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE An ordinance amendment creating a new Diversity Commission in the city will stand. The City Council on Monday unanimously overrode Mayor Ken Hopkins's veto of the measure, clearing the way for the new, codified, nine-member panel to

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NEWS

Council overrides diversity panel veto

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An ordinance amendment creating a new Diversity Commission in the city will stand.

The City Council on Monday unanimously overrode Mayor Ken Hopkins’s veto of the measure, clearing the way for the new, codified, nine-member panel to proceed.

Several council members did indicate they will support, or consider, follow-up changes to the commission’s composition – specifically the restoration of a pair of mayoral appointments that were not included in the ordinance’s final language, a factor Hopkins cited as central to his veto.

“I’m open to future conversations, but we need to override the veto this evening,” Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan said.

“I do see the intention of the mayor … but this board is too important for us to be playing around with tonight,” Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli said, adding: “I think we need to move this forward so this commission can get back to work.”

The debate over the new Diversity Commission – which will be charged with “reviewing the city’s services, programs, hiring and recruiting practices as well as diversity inclusion policies” and submitting periodic reports to the council and mayor, according to the text of the ordinance – has produced some of the most charged exchanges seen among top city officials this year.

The council approved the measure in April following amendments that altered its composition. Among the changes was the removal of direct mayoral appointments to the new panel. Instead, the council’s president and minority leader will each have two appointments to the commission.

Backers of the change say the administration will be amply represented on the panel, which will include the fire chief, police chief and director of personnel. They also said the amendments as a whole were intended to include a broader range of community voices on the new commission, which will also include representatives of the NAACP’s Providence branch and the OneCranston Health Equity Zone, or HEZ.

Those points were reiterated Monday, with Donegan, citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino and others also making the point that the mayor’s administration did not raise concerns over the amendments to the commission during the council’s review process last month.

“If they wanted changes to be made to what was proposed, there were opportunities … That’s the appropriate way to go about this, not vetoing the commission,” Donegan said.

“It’s important that [the commission] be representative of the community,” Marino said, adding that having five members of the administration sit on the commission would “set a different tone than I think most of us would have hoped for.”

Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas added: “This should be a community-based board … I firmly believe in that.”

In his veto message, Hopkins cited the removal of the mayoral appointments as his primary concern, asking the council to “work with me” to amend the measure and restore some direct appointment authority for his office.

Anthony Moretti, the mayor’s chief of staff, made a similar case to the council Monday, saying Hopkins “wants to make it clear to everyone that this is not a result of opposing the commission at all. He just wants to strengthen it.” Specifically, the mayor has asked for two appointments to the commission, with the intention of selecting Workforce Development Director Sean Holley, who is Black, and Economic Development and Diversity Outreach Director Franklin Paulino, who is Hispanic.

In a recent interview for the Herald’s “Radio Beacon” podcast, Hopkins went much further, describing himself as “livid” and calling the council’s moves a “slap in the face.” He suggested members of the council had helped feed an impression among some in the community that he does not value, or is not committed to, diversity, and he continued to hold up his administration as the “most diverse” in the city’s history.

Following Monday’s override vote, Hopkins responded through a pair of tweets.

“Just so everyone understands, I support diversity 1000%. I just wanted the two positions back that were taken away by this Council so that I could appoint minority candidates from the most diverse administration in the history of our city,” the first reads.

The second continues: “Just tell the truth. Those that know me understand. I have spent my entire career supporting diversity. Just tell the truth.”

While no action could be taken Monday to alter the makeup of the new Diversity Commission, there appeared to be an appetite among council members to address Hopkins’s concerns going forward.

Council Vice President Ed Brady, who represents Ward 4, said he will be “actively working” on an ordinance amendment to provide for the two mayoral appointments.

Regarding the override vote, he said: “I do believe this is something that we all sponsored and we were all behind, and I’m still just as much behind it.”

Council President Chris Paplauskas also indicated he will back the mayor’s requested appointments.

“I would support those changes in the future,” he said.

Vargas said she is “definitely open to conversations in the near future.” She and other council members also noted that members of the administration, including Holley and Paulino, would be able to sit in on and actively participate in the new commission’s meetings without formally sitting on the panel.

Ward 6 Councilman Matthew Reilly said he also favors the mayoral appointments. Holley and Paulino, he said, “would be great additions to the board.”

Reilly also questioned the inclusion of the NAACP and the OneCranston HEZ on the panel, citing “concerns about having conflicting goals.”

“I do have some discomfort having an outside interest group creating policy in the city,” he said.

He added, however: “I do feel it’s important. We do need a Diversity Commission.”

Marino pushed back against Reilly’s concerns, saying the two organizations involved are “not partisan.” She also noted the council will need to approve the specific NAACP and OneCranston HEZ appointments.

Perhaps the most striking comments on Monday came from Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain, who responded to the mayor’s comments during his recent interview while speaking in support of the veto override.

“We are having this conversation again, and I feel a little frightened and disappointed … but I was sent to this body to do what is right, not to please anyone or to take an easy path,” she said. “So I think we cannot continue to be led by old boy politics, so I encourage you to be brave. Because Cranston residents speak, and we listened.”

She added: “So the right thing to do is to serve the people who sent us to this body, not the ego of any one person.”

Moretti then asked why Germain had used the word “frightened,” and whether it was related in any way to the mayor.

“We never want to put her in a position to be frightened … I’m sure the mayor would be concerned if it has to do with him, because he would do everything possible not to have you feel that way,” he said.

Germain, in her response, alluded to specific quotes from the mayor’s interview.

Regarding the council’s override of his budget vetoes, Hopkins said: “So the council wants to play politics, that’s fine with me. I’m a big boy and I’ll take off my gloves any day.” Later in the conversation, the mayor had also directly referred to Germain, who he said “continues to bash me publicly, saying that I don’t communicate, I don’t have any respect for her.”

Germain told Moretti on Monday: “My name was cited particularly in news media, and I see words like ‘take my gloves off,’ and that means something to me … I’m frightened about the politics, the old boy politics.”

Following the exchange between Germain and Moretti, Renzulli said: “It breaks my heart that Councilwoman Germain is coming on publicly at a City Council meeting and saying she’s frightened. It also breaks my heart that Mayor Hopkins has said people have been calling him a racist. I think that we are all lacking in some communication, maybe offline … We should all be working together for Cranston, and I think we all ultimately have the same goals and differing opinions on how to get there exactly. But we all need to be better, every one of us, need to be better to make this work so no one is feeling the way that they’re feeling. Because this is sad.”

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