Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

When the reporter becomes a participant

An interview with Uprrise RI’s Steve Ahlquist, reflecting on the events he observed and reported on when the Finance Committee of the Providence City Council met on Nov. 28

Photo by Steve Ahlquist, used with his permission

A member of the community opposed to the fast-tracking of a new 30-year lease for ProvPort attempted to make her views known at the Nov. 28 meeting of the Providence City Council Finance Committee.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/5/22
Community activists and two reporters – Steve Ahlquist and Amy Russo – documented what happened when the Providence City Council attempted to force through a new 30-year lease for ProvPort, apparently only to run afoul of alleged Open Meeting Law violations.
How might the Attorney General Neronha become involved regarding the alleged Open Meetings law violations by the Providence City Council? What are the latest health statistics regarding the incidence of asthma in Providence and the connection to chronic absenteeism in city’s public schools? How can the installation of electric heat pumps in residential properties across Rhode Island decrease the demand for new natural gas supplies and infrastructure investments? How much federal money is scheduled to flow into Rhode Island to support new offshore wind farm infrastructure businesses in the state?
On Monday afternoon, Dec. 5, there will be a gathering at the Save The Bay headquarters to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972, as a way to reaffirm and recognize “how dependent Rhode Island’s quality of life is on this critical law,” as the news release put out by the R.I. Department of Environmental lManagement proclaimed.
For sure, Narragansett Bay defines Rhode Island, and its water quality is a measurement of the improved quality of life Rhode Island residents enjoy. The work being done by Rebecca Altman and her colleagues, focused on plastics, needs to be incorporated into future work on maintaining clean water, understanding that plastics manufacturing is all about fossil fuel production. Translated, “the only plastic that never becomes waste that never becomes waste is the one we never make,” as Roland Geyer said in 2020, cited by Altman.
In her forthcoming book, The Song of Styrene, Altman will take readers on a journey that has great meaning for the future of Narragansett Bay and for the hope for cleaner water. Any celebration of the Clean Water Act requires not only measuring the progress made in addressing past threats but the future ones as well, and the willingness to listen to community advocates and activists when they speak out – including at City Council meetings.

PROVIDENCE – At the recent Finance Committee hearing held by the Providence City Council on Monday evening, Nov. 28, Steve Ahlquist of Uprise RI was one of two reporters present in person, covering the meeting. His reporting captured what happened during a concerted effort by lame duck city councilors to push through an extension of the 30-year lease for ProvPort as well as a tax stabilization deal, in advance of a newly elected City Council and a new mayor taking their seats in January of 2023.

Ahlquist’s reporting and descriptions of the confusing scene, which led to angry community activists being asked to leave the council chambers and the doors then being shut behind them – which in turn led to a confrontation with armed police officers, caught ConvergenceRI’s attention.

The role of being an observing reporter, not a participant, can often become a difficult process to navigate – particularly when the reporter is recording what appears to be disturbing behavior by elected officials, as ConvergenceRI can testify.

[Editor’s Note: In what seems like more than a few lifetimes ago, as managing editor of The Valley Advocate, I was arrested by Col. Paul Doyon of the N.H. State Police, after showing him my state media credentials, at the site of the Seabrook, N.H., occupation in 1977; I was cornered and roughed up, pushed up against the wall and prodded with nightsticks by the members of the “civil disobedience squad” of the Philadelphia police force in 1975, while covering a trial, until being rescued by a radio reporter from WMMR.]

The rush to judgment by the Providence City Council has been postponed, apparently, according to the latest developments announced on Thursday evening, Dec. 1.

What is still not clear is exactly why the decision was made to postpone the vote scheduled at a Dec. 1 City Council meeting – and whether the postponement had anything to do with a complaint alleging Open Meeting law violations that was filed by Julian Drix with the R.I. Attorney General.

The “news” that a decision had been reached to postpone the vote had a further twist of irony attached to it. Two City Council members and Bill Fischer, the lobbyist for ProvPort, literally hijacked a news conference scheduled by community activist Monica Huertas, executive director of the People’s Port Authority, in order to announce that a last-minute deal had been reached to postpone the vote.

Huertas was taken by surprise by the turn of events. As Ahlquist reported what happened, in Uprise RI:

“Excuse me, because this is my press conference for the People’s Port Authority,” Huertas said, arriving at her own press conference. “And I have not been informed of anything. Nobody has contacted me or called me. No one has contacted the People’s Port Authority or the Office of Sustainability who is represented here.”

Translated, not only had the voices from the community advocates been ignored at the Nov. 28 Finance Committee meeting, now their scheduled news conference had been hijacked as well, demonstrating a total disdain for what they had to say, in ConvergenceRIs opinion.

In the aftermath, the question to ask is this: If there was an award to be given out for the best combined example of structural racism, unconscious bias, and racial inequity in action in Rhode Island, what could top this?

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Steve Ahlquist of Uprise RI, covering what happened when he was reporting on the Providence City Council Finance Committee meeting on Monday evening, Nov. 28. The interview was conducted through a series of emailed questions and responses.

[Editor’s Note: Ahlquist’s answers reflect his own personal and political views, which do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ConvergenceRI.]

ConvergenceRI: In your description of the meeting of the Finance Committee, you described the actions of City Council President John Igliozzi as “whipping votes with the fervor of Gollum lusting after the one ring.” What was he doing?
AHLQUIST: The Providence City Council President was buzzing around everywhere. He was in the chamber glad-handing developers, lobbyists and attorneys for both the Port and for the other three projects on the agenda seeking tax stabilization agreements from the city.

He was in the hallway outside the chamber, gathering in small groups with special interests having hushed conversations. He was in and out of his offices with members of the City Council – mostly those members of the city council who ultimately supported the ProvPort legislation.

At one point, someone familiar with what was going on [I’m being vague here to preserve their anonymity] made a “whipping” motion with their hand, and mouthed: “Whip, whip whip” at me, to describe the Council President’s non-stop efforts to whip votes in favor of the ProvPort legislation.

[Editor’s Note: For those unfamiliar with Gollum, he is a character from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, who is desperately seeking to regain control of an all-powerful ring.]

ConvergenceRI: How did Councilwoman Ryan rush the vote on the ProvPort ordinances?
AHLQUIST: There were several ways. At an earlier Finance Committee meeting, held in part to schedule this legislation for a hearing, Chair Ryan was asked why this legislation was being fast-tracked by a constituent. Chair Ryan said, and this is not an exact quote, “It’s not being-fast tracked. I’m scheduling this because it’s on my agenda to be scheduled.”

Anyone familiar with the way legislation moves through the Providence City Council knows that:

• The legislation was on the agenda because, in part, Chair Ryan is responsible for the agenda

• Just because it’s on the agenda to be scheduled for a hearing doesn’t mean it has to be scheduled

• The legislation can be scheduled for a hearing anytime before the new council is sworn in, it didn't have to be at the next meeting

• After the hearing, the legislation didn’t have to be voted on right away.

Oftentimes the hearing and the vote are scheduled days or even weeks apart to give the committee members time to consider the merits of the legislation.

Add to this the fact that Chair Ryan, on video, jumped all over the motion to pass the legislation and did so without allowing time for discussion between the motion being seconded and the motion being passed by acclimation, i.e., a chorus of “ayes” instead of a roll-call count, and you have a rushed vote.

I want to note that people who have confidence in the moral rightness of their cause and in the systems they’ve sworn to uphold almost never have reason to rush a vote on legislation that will affect the future of their constituents for decades.

ConvergenceRI: Who, in your opinion, was pulling the strings in the attempt to push through the lease extension and tax agreement?
AHLQUIST: It’s really hard to say, but many of the usual actors were in play. Attorney Nicholas Hemond, who recently was trying to help Sea 3 LPG expand fossil fuels in the Port, was there on behalf of the Port. Chris Waterson, whose company Waterson Terminal Services runs the Port, certainly has political sway. Lobbyist Bill Fischer was working for the ProvPort. Lame-duck Council President Igliozzi was [allegedly] delivering the goods for rich and connected insiders, as usual, [in Ahlquist’s opinion].

How far up does this go? I'd say anyone looking to cash in on the money coming to Rhode Island, in the form of wind energy money, was keen to make sure that the profits go to the right, connected people, and that the concerns of the community were downplayed and ignored. I'll have more to say about this later [in my response to another question].

ConvergenceRI: You have done a great job covering this meeting, particularly the confrontation between community activists who were “pushed” out of the hearing room. [Can you] please describe what happened?
AHLQUIST: After the rushed vote, the community [advocates attending the hearing opposed to the legislation] were justifiably outraged, No one had testified in favor of this legislation. Everyone had asked for time to review, time to have some input. They weren’t even necessarily against the legislation; they just wanted some… input. But even this humble ask was too much for the powers that be.

So, community members let their disdain for the process – a bad, corrupted process – be known in a vocal way. The sergeant-at-arms and the officer on duty told the community members to be quiet, but they refused.

Had Chair Ryan been thoughtful, she might have understood the effect this vote would have on the community [members in attendance] and recessed for 10 minutes after the vote, but instead, she bulled her way onto the next three agenda items.

The community members used this opportunity to disrupt the meeting, with shouts of “Shame!” – and other, less printable words.

The law enforcement officer on duty started to order people out of the chamber, and when Monica Huertas, who chairs the People’s Port Authority, didn’t move as fast as the officer thought she should, he pushed her out the door and slammed the door shut after everyone was out.

Once everybody was in the hallway outside the City Council chamber, around 15 police officers came charging in, wearing bullet-proof vests. It was ridiculous. The people testifying against this legislation were community members, not criminals. These are moms whose children suffer from asthma, who live in a community with some of the highest rates of asthma in the country. These are environmental activists who regularly testify at public meetings across the state. These are community members outraged by the anti-democratic behavior of elected officials, desperately giving away public goods for private gain. And, they were being treated like criminals.

ConvergenceRI: How have the rest of the news media failed, in your opinion, to fully cover this story? Were there any TV cameras there from Channels 6, 12, and 10? Was the Boston Globe there? How about PBN?
AHLQUIST: The only other reporter in the room that I saw was Amy Russo from The Providence Journal. She [said she] was there because she had read my piece about the Sustainability Commission meeting that Keith Stokes spoken at.

None of these other media orgs cover these kinds of stories, because this story doesn’t follow the script they understand. Privatization and monied interests are good things. Capitalism is great! Abuses of power like this aren’t real - they are phantoms, based on the public’s misunderstanding of process.

Worse, there’s a racial and classist component. Why do mostly low-income, mostly BIPOC residents living in neighborhoods abutting the Port think they know better than the very smart, very rich, whiter men telling them what’s good for them?

Environmental justice communities are sacrifice zones, and the people who live in them are sacrifices to the gods of capitalism.

ConvergenceRI What were the takeaways from this story, in your opinion?
AHLQUIST: What happened Monday evening in the Providence City Council Finance Committee hearing is happening hundreds and thousands of times all over the world as people try to say “No!” to the business-as-usual policies that have gotten us to this place of extreme inequality, environmental degradation, privatization of the common [good] and climate apocalypse.

When I close my eyes and [try to] imagine the future, I see a world of clean energy and clean industry with minimal waste. I imagine clean water and clean air, clean food and healthy children.

But getting from here to there means changing things. And since there are people who profit mightily from the way things are, they will do anything to preserve their power and their profits. These men don’t care about children with asthma; 150 years ago, these men would have worked these children to death in fields. Now these kids are just in the way.

When people step up, they are ignored. When people speak loudly and take power in the systems that used to hold them down, the systems are changed and the norms of those systems are tossed aside. And, when the people complain about these injustices, the police are called and the people are forced into silence at the point of a gun.

What is most ironic is that the people living in the neighborhoods around the Port are no different than the people living in the neighborhoods represented by Councilors Ryan and Igliozzi. The only difference is that, right now, nobody rich and powerful wants what these neighborhoods have to offer.

But the second someone rich and powerful enough wants their shit, they'll take it. And Councilors Ryan and Igliozzi will be wondering how they ended up on the butcher’s block.

I learned this covering the efforts of the Chicago-based company, Invenergy, to build a $1 billion, fracked gas- and diesel oil-burning power plant in the pristine forests of Burrillville. Though parts of Burrillville are low-income, many in that town are upper middle class. But their wealth and whiteness didn’t protect them.

A billionaire from Chicago wanted their stuff, and it took four years of nonstop fighting to stop him.

Fighting for the climate – fighting for a future worth living in – means fighting for the neighborhoods around the Port and fighting against the casual political corruption, typified by the likes of the current Providence City Council.

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