Catching up with City Council President Luis Aponte at the Elmwood Diner, there is an immediate East Side connection as the owner is introduced and she explains that she also owns the Eastside Mart on Lloyd Avenue. It is four days after the Blizzard of 2015 and almost all of the conversation in the restaurant and with the Council President is about the horrible job that the City did cleaning up the streets after the storm. And it’s not just the East Side that’s going ballistic over the problem. “This is a citywide problem,” Aponte explains, “and it’s terrible.”
“Everywhere I’ve been, it’s all I’ve heard about. The Tavares administration fired the people in Public Works who knew how to run the snow clearing operations. And, that was after the Cicilline Administration lowered the standards to ‘barely passable.’ Streets need to be down to pavement and wide enough for normal traffic flow with parking so businesses can function and do business. It’s also a question of safety.”
Aponte was first elected to the City Council in 1998, representing Ward 10 - which encompasses Washington Park and Lower South Providence. He was considered a member of the more progressive wing of council as he moved through the ranks. He does recall that things were much more parochial back then. “In those days, Councillors represented their Wards and were focused on specific neighborhood issues and problems, while the Mayor represented the whole City. Today, the Council has to take a more global view to work with the Mayor to bring the city forward. We have major financial issues to address, education and school issues as well as development opportunities issues.” In his mind, these are issues that affect all residents of Providence wherever they live.
LOOKING FORWARD TO WORKING WITH THE MAYOR
Aponte likes Mayor Jorge Elorza and has already begun a good working relationship, which is important since the Council, which comprises 15 members, has a majority that can override a Mayoral veto. “I think that the Mayor is trying very hard, is genuine and I believe will be more hands on than his predecessor who was MIA for the last 18 months. I like his energy level and his reaching out to all of the City’s stakeholders. However, we need to make sure that the basic fundamentals, like snowplowing, are addressed."
Two of the three East Side Council members, Seth Yurdin in Ward 1 and Sam Zurier in Ward 2, did not support Aponte, but unlike his predecessor who sent his enemies to Siberia, Aponte has found places for both council members on key committees. “I value their insight and intelligence and it’s the right move for the City,” adds Aponte.
The Council has to work with the administration to make sure that all residents are getting high quality services and that all of the neighborhoods and downtown are treated equally. “We all know that a significant portion of the tax base is on the East Side and downtown, and that many of the needs of these areas are far different than other areas of the city, but as you could see by the snowstorm, no area received preferential treatment. We have to improve the quality of life for everyone and we have to clean up and fix up areas in each neighborhood. And, we have to do all of this while staying within our means.”
DIFFERING WITH ELORZA OVER TAXES AND PORT
The first major conflict may be in Elorza’s first budget, for which he “promised no tax increase” during the campaign and is an issue that is very near and dear to the East Side. “I’m not committing to that until we see the projections. There is a gap in the budget already and it’s somewhere between $10.4 million and possibly as high as $24 million. We know that there are serious financial problems and we have to act responsibly.”
Another area to watch is Allens Avenue and the working Port. Elorza is content with the scrap operations. Aponte is not and it happens to fall into his Ward. “There is no major city with this kind of waterfront opportunity that isn’t looking at opportunities for residential and commercial development. I support the working waterfront, but we have plenty of unused acreage to relocate some of these businesses and greatly expand our tax base. The property abuts the I-195 properties and is potentially a game-changing development opportunity that would be the highest and best use for the waterfront and the City. The Governor talks about the great possibilities of ‘Meds and Eds’ for revitalizing the economy and this area could not be better positioned to accommodate both of these constituencies.”
He points out that if the student apartment complex is approved, this will be the third I-195 parcel which would trigger the construction of the major parking complex behind the Garrahy Court House - which will be a further incentive for development. It’s something he feels would provide a much needed catalyst to the area.
“Tax stabilizations and TIFs are im- portant tools in economic development and every major new project wants or need one,” explains Aponte. “Each deal is negotiated separately with the City Council. I’d like to see some standardization and some exploration of linkage programs that will result in a break for the developer and some kind of other support for the City, possibly a ‘Housing Trust Fund’ that could help promote the development of workforce housing.”
VIEWS ON EDUCATION
Education remains a major cause of concern. “We have to get the state to lift the moratorium on building,” explains Aponte. “Our school buildings are in horrible condition. We have deferred maintenance issues that must be addressed. These buildings can’t take any more use.”
On the issue of education, he explains, “Providence has a tremendous immigrant population and many first generation students, giving us challenges that few other cities have to deal with. I don’t have a problem with Charter Schools but we can’t favor them over our own system. The Center for Dynamic Learning on the south side is a great example of programs that can meet these challenges. I watched a class and heard a student exclaim, ‘Math now makes sense to me’ after a teacher gave him a perspective that he could understand. We also have to find ways to educate the workforce with training programs as well as increasing adult education.”
“I am also a strong supporter of the street car proposal that would bring dedicated transportation to business districts from the neighborhoods and transportation hubs,” he explains. “Cities that are business-friendly and successful are able to move people to their workplaces quickly and efficiently. I know the cost is high, but the federal government bears the majority of it and it may come down to dedicated trolley or small bus lanes rather than an actual streetcar system.”
DEALING WITH CAMPAIGN VIOLATIONS
One of the areas of concern to many on the East Side is Aponte’s long-standing unwillingness to follow the rules when it comes to his previous campaigns. He has been criticized for failing to file dozens of campaign finance reports with the Board of Elections and has been hit with thousands of dollars in fines. He explanation is that “the majority of the past due reports have been filed and that these non-filings were caused by numerous personal and personnel issues.” He goes on to emphasize, ”but that shouldn’t be taken as an excuse as to why they weren’t filed. We have a meeting scheduled with the Board this month and will get everything resolved.”
Luis Aponte is 51 and was first elected to the City Council in 1998 and was re-elected for his fifth term in November. He is the first Latino Council President in Providence’s history. Aponte is next in line to become Mayor and points out that this is the first time that the City’s top three elected officials are all Hispanic.
It should be noted that Aponte has more hands-on committee experience than virtually all of the current sitting councilmen. He has served as Vice-Chairman of the Special Committee on Ways and Means and was a member of the Special Commission to Study Property Tax Revaluation. He was also one of three City Council representatives on the Task Force on Economic Development. Previously, he was the Council Majority Leader and has served on the Committee on Finance, the Special Commission on State Legislation, the City Council Rules Committee and the Providence Redevelopment Agency.
In addition to his City Council activities, Aponte has been a Founding Member of the Juanita Sanchez Multi Service Center and served on the Boards of the Center for Hispanic Advocacy & Policy, the Urban League of RI, the State Housing Appeals Board, the Governor’s Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) Commission, the Institute for the Study and the Practice of Non-Violence and The Center on Minorities in the Building Trades.
Aponte lives in Washington Park and has two children, Jenelia and Nicio.