Cicilline tries to move past last week's snow storm

In a performance straight from Politics 101, Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline this afternoon took responsibility for the city's troubled response to last week's snow storm and outlined steps that he said will prevent a future repeat of the same thing. The ultimate goal, of course, is to put the whole episode in the past.

"I want to begin by saying that the ultimate responsibility for the safe transportation of our children in the public schools rests with me," Cicilline said during a City Hall news conference. "And while the entire region was hit hard by a severe storm, including our state, on Thursday, causing major gridlock on interstate highways, which impacted travel within the city, there was a major breakdown in communications that resulted in students being stranded on school buses for long periods of time. In addition, timely and accurate information was not provided to many parents. Having children on school buses for three, four, or more hours was totally unacceptable. First to our kids, this should have never happened and it will not happen again."

Flanked by Police Chief Dean Esserman, other police commanders, and outgoing director of administration John Simmons, Cicilline described what he called the "overall systemic failures of that night:"

First, by mid-afternoon it should have been clear that a serious problem with school delays was brewing, and no red flag was raised; second, by late afternoon it was clear that a serious problem was at hand, and still no red flag was raised; third, for lack of this red flag there was a total breakdown in the parental notification system. Finally, in a broader sense, there was no coordinated cross-communication across city departments to respond to the school bus issue."   

Cicilline said he has communicated his "grave disappointment" to School Superintendent Donnie Evans for his performance in the storm, although he said Evans still enjoys his confidence. The mayor announced that he was removing Leo Messier, as director of EMA, and suspending without pay Tomas Hannah, chief of operations for the Providence schools, for 30 days.

According to a news release:

Mayor Cicilline outlined five action steps to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future:


• The City has modified its Emergency Operations Plan to require the Emergency Operations Cabinet to be automatically activated whenever school children are being transported during extreme weather with dangerous driving conditions.


• First Student Transportation has agreed to establish a communication system that will improve the ability of bus drivers or bus monitors to communicate directly with the bus yard in order to report any difficulties in transportation students.


• Mayor has directed the School Superintendent to establish a communication procedure that requires parents to be notified every hour by an automated phone call system when there are substantial delays on school buses.


• Mayor has directed the School Superintendent to establish, immediately, a dedicated hotline to answer parents’ questions regarding their children’s transportation. The hotline will be staffed with sufficient personnel during emergencies so that parents will not be kept on hold for unreasonable periods of time.


• Mayor has directed the School Superintendent to reverse the current transportation schedules in weather emergencies to ensure that the youngest and most vulnerable children are transported first.

Last week's storm, considering its pace and timing, was bound to be a mess. And considering how Governor Carcieri has not come off well, Cicilline isn't the only elected official who didn't emerge as a superb leader in responding. Let's not forget that parts of I-95 were unpassable.


The difference for Cicilline, who has enjoyed a high statewide approval rating in polls out of Brown University, is that the storm response clashes with his self-description as the guy who has improved and professionalized city government. While the mayor maintained that his overall record holds up well, Christmas came early for his political opponents -- who have been egged on, in part, by WPRO talk-show host Buddy Cianci. All this presents a more complicated environment for Cicilline as we approach the 2010 gubernatorial race.


Some of the mayor's critics are using the occasion to rap Esserman, who, according to Dan Yorke and ABC6, worked out at the Gold's Gym near the Pawtucket line at about 4:30 pm on the day of the storm (no questions were asked about this during the news conference). While this might constitute an error of judgment, Providence police performed a valuable public service as their recognition of storm-related problems grew last week. And let's keep the big picture in mind: Esserman deserves a lot of credit for reforming what had long been a seriously dysfunctional and problem-plagued department.


The Providence City Council plans to discuss the snow response tonight.


Quasi-surreal Providence PS: Walter Miller, the unofficial jester of Cianci's late tenure at City Hall, performed a card trick, indicating, he says, that the storm response in Providence wasn't Cicilline's fault. He also predicts the Patriots will win their next game.


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