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More on at-large council seats in Prov

My friend Matt gave me a rash of grief yesterday about my generally favorable take on Cliff Wood's proposal to reconstitute the Providence City Council with 10 ward-based seats and five at-large seats. He equates the concept with downsizing democracy and says it would severely advantage deep-pocketed (white) candidates.

He's got a post up today about the subject, as does state Representative David Segal, a former member of the Providence council and someone who has ardently backed measures to increase proportional representation.

Segal:

[While proponents tout broader thinking] this is a BAD idea, unless seats are allocated proportionally.  Ari and I wrote about these issues here. Two quick points about the 10-5 plan:

  • It’d mean more representation by rich, white, high-turnout portions of town, and therefore more influence by moneyed interests.
  • The city would be setting itself up for a civil rights lawsuit, as Ward 11 — the only seat held by an African American — would be chopped up into majority white and Latino areas.  A city that is 15% African American would likely be left with no African American on the city council.  (Have we really not learned the lessons of the redistricting of 2002, which pitted Sens Pichardo and Walton against one another?)

I’ll write about all of this in more detail later.

Jerzyk:

It is disturbing to see so many "liberals" support the idea of downsizing the Providence City Council from 15 wards to 10 wards and then adding 5 at-large seats.  This effort will reduce the ability of Providence residents to run for office, reduce the minority representation on the Council (from 4 to 2 or 1 or 0) and position the wealthy areas of our city to have a windfall on the Council.  I support the progressive solution: Councilman Seth Yurdin's idea of keeping our 15 wards and adding 2-6 at-large seats to the Council elected on a "proportional representation" system to ensure "one-person, one-vote" throughout the city.  

Let's acknowledge a few things:

-- The tradition of not publicly criticizing things in other councilors' wards does promote an extreme form of parochial thinking. A rare exception came some years back when Luis Aponte spoke critically about a development proposal for Eagle Square, which is outside his ward.

-- There is a Cicilline-esque patina to Wood's effort. Certainly, the mayor, who might run for reelection, as opposed to pursuing a gubernatorial bid, would like to enhance his influence over the council. Back in 2006, I was the first to write in-depth about this subject, when I broke the news of Wood's challenge to longtime incumbent Rita Williams.

So if this is a circle that needs to be squared, how does that happen?

Matt suggested to me that if the 10-5 at-large concept is flawed, it shouldn't be put to the voters. He suggested that the council instead hold publicly accessible hearings, with lots of public input, on all three related proposals -- Wood's, Yurdin's, and one by John Igliozzi. Let me add that my main interest in writing about this subject was to put it out there. And while Matt and David raise some good points, that is not necessarily a reason to maintain the status quo.

This being Providence, Matt and I continued discussing the issue over a post-work drink yesterday, and one of the 10-5 proponents, Steve Durkee, wound up in the same establishment, briefly joining our debate.

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