Monday, November 30, 2009

Q&A with John M. Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode

Subject: Q&A with John M. Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island

Pub: Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly

Author: Jack Dew

Issue Date: 11/30/2009

Q&A with John M. Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island
by Jack Dew


Graduated: State University of New York at Binghamton (1994), graduate work at Indiana University

Job: Executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island

Practice area: Common Cause is a non-partisan government reform advocacy organization.
Rhode Island adopted its merit-based judicial selection system in 1994, thanks in part to heavy pressure from Common Cause. Fifteen years later, the process is still evolving, and Common Cause has been advocating for changes that would increase the independence of the Judicial Nominating Commission. Common Cause Executive Director John M. Marion spoke with Lawyers Weekly’s Jack Dew about how far the judicial nominating process has come and where it’s going.

Q. It has been 15 years since the reforms. Have they been an improvement?

A. Yes, I think it has improved some things. Now, the first prerequisite for trying to become a judge in Rhode Island isn’t political connections, and that is the whole key to merit selection. Like any kid in the class, a lawyer can raise their hand and say, “I want to be a judge.” Prior to 1994, you couldn’t do that; you had to call the speaker of the House or the governor or someone close to them.

Q. What isn’t working?

A. The other parts of the system, the other actors, have not been fulfilling their role properly. The Assembly leaders and the governor are responsible for putting people on the commission, and they haven’t been doing that in a timely manner. At one point they reappointed someone even though the statute says there would be no reappointments. The governor currently has a list [of nominees for judgeships] that is five months old even though he is supposed to act within 21 days from the time the JNC sends him the list.

Q. Have there been any attempts to circumvent the system?

A. There have been a couple of attempts to circumvent the system. A law has been in place for three years that lets anyone who makes the list for a certain court but doesn’t get picked to remain eligible for any opening in that court for five years. That goes against the idea that a fresh list of the best qualified people is being given to the governor. Also, at the time the JNC was created, there were one or two magistrates in the court system. Now there are 21, and they don’t go through the merit selection process, so a whole body of judicial officers has been created outside of the system.

Q. How can the JNC be strengthened?

A. They need to indicate in some way that they expect to be treated like a mature institution, and, at the same time, they need to show their independence to the public. There was a proposal a number of years ago to ban ex parte communications between commissioners. We believe that those sorts of measures need to be taken up by the commission.

Q. If you could make a single change to the process, what would it be?

A. I would change the public perception of the process. No one has ever believed that they need to commit the necessary time and resources and attention to this process, so [the JNC] has never received a real budget, a real staff. The commissioners have overstayed their terms, the appointments have been made late, and no one has ever said that we should give this process the best chance we can for it to work as well as it can.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

John Marion: Connecting the dots on Smith Hill

The Rhode Island General Assembly returned for a brief two-day session in late October to finish up business it had left in its June recess. The week before its advertised return, Common Cause Rhode Island sent an e-mail, followed by a letter, to every member of the General Assembly asking them to reinstate their operating rules for conducting business. The legislature failed to do so, and instead, both the House and the Senate broke several of their own rules. Only now, weeks after the Assembly’s short session, are we seeing strong evidence that their failure to reinstate the rules means our government business is being conducted behind closed doors.

The rules of the House and Senate are created to govern the behavior of the respective chambers. They specify everything from whether members can smoke, drink and talk on cell phones on the floor of the chambers (they cannot) to when a member may speak during a debate. Some of the most important provisions involve notice to both members and the public of committee hearings, floor votes, and access to bills.

It’s typical for the Senate and House to suspend those rules on public notice during in the final days of June as they rush to adjourn, finishing up all of the substantive work left over after the budget has passed. This year was no different. Both chambers suspended a large number of those rules governing public access and notice with one notable exception. This year the Assembly didn’t adjourn in June; rather it came back in October. And when it returned it didn’t put those rules back into force.

So, for example, the rules of the House prohibit the chamber from passing more than 50 bills in one day. On Oct. 29, the House passed over 70 bills. Does anyone believe that legislating that fast is the best way to act as a deliberative body? Yes, the vast majority of what they voted on were “duplicates,” bills that had passed both chambers already and now had to “cross over” and be voted on again. But it is asking a lot to expect legislators to remember each of the hundreds of votes they cast in June. It was an almost impossible task.

Common Cause called for reinstating the rules, in part so that the process would slow down and mistakes would be avoided. As we know from The Journal’s Nov. 4 article “Without notice expungements almost expanded,” it was only a simple miscommunication in the final hours that led to an error that derailed significant legislation. Common Cause takes no position on the issue of expungement of criminal records itself, but it is concerned that with bills like this the process is so rushed and confused that no one even knows what is happening.

The expungement bill has been around for a while, and the public has had a chance to weigh in on it at various points in the legislative process. The real concern about not having all of the rules in place is that new issues, never subject to the scrutiny of the public or even the members of the legislature itself, would emerge. And now we have strong evidence that this is exactly what happened. As the Oct. 30 article “R.I. lawmakers plow through heavy agenda to the end” points out, a new bill was introduced late in the evening, S 1060, “that would divert hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling revenue from the state’s coffers to the Town of Lincoln,” and was immediately passed. No notice to the public, no notice to the members, no hearing in committee, no deliberation of members concerning this legislation took place in public. There was no democracy.

Did the language exist in another bill, under another bill number that had been heard many months earlier? Yes. But that could only be determined post hoc. The people, and the members, deserve to know what they’re voting on in advance of those votes. The public has the right to weigh in on issues that affect it. There is a reason rules exist, and that is to keep government open. This is clearly a case of closed government. But interestingly, it’s not the end of the story.

And now here is where the story gets interesting, and where we begin to understand why government without deliberation is government conducted not by all of our elected representatives. On Nov. 3, the Rhode Island Lottery Commission director moved to expand casino gambling at Twin River in Lincoln to 24 hours a day on weekdays (“24/7 slots coming to Twin River”).

Even the least cynical person can see that the legislature was effectuating an apparent quid pro quo with Lincoln in passing a new bill, late in the evening, during a rushed session, when no one was looking and apparently with the collaboration of the Carcieri administration, which includes the Lottery Commission.

Conducting an inquiry into how our government works is a necessary if not fun exercise. Why? Because it shows us that unless the rules are in place, all we can do as citizens is watch while decisions are made about our lives by our government without our input.

Common Cause will be there as long as is necessary to ensure that our government works for the people that elected it. Please join us in that fight.

John Marion is executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Columnist Fitzpatrick says R.I. judicial selction process needs transparency

Roger Williams University law Professor Michael J. Yelnosk said he heard a lot of great stories as he was organizing a Nov. 13 symposium on how Rhode Island picks state judges.

But some people swore him to secrecy and others said “if they told me the truth they’d have to kill me,” he said, drawing laughs at the outset of the event. He said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (who’ll be a Roger Williams University adjunct professor in the spring) didn’t respond to his invitation to take part in the symposium. “And she wasn’t the only legislator who would not do so,” he said. “So my one regret is we have no representation from the General Assembly today.”

Also, a commission refused to grant continuing legal-education credits for lawyers attending the event, although lawyers received credits for listening to actor Richard Dreyfuss talk about civics education, Yelnosky said. (A spokesman said the event would have qualified for half a credit if it included 10 more minutes on relevant law.)

“You get the sense that some people would rather not hear about what’s happening in judicial selection,” Yelnosky said, calling the 50 people who did attend “the few, the brave, the retired, the tenured and the residing outside the jurisdiction.”

While no Assembly members participated, some panelists echoed the tired, predictable arguments you hear from those in power: That judicial selection should be more secretive, that critics (such as Common Cause) are elitist, and that political involvement and ties shouldn’t disqualify judicial candidates.

That last argument precisely misses the point, which is that you shouldn’t have to know a guy at the State House to become a judge. Panelist Alan S. Flink, a Common Cause board member and former Bar Association president, gets it. “Should people involved in politics be excluded? No,” he said. “Should everyone else be excluded? No.”

Panelist Stephen J. Carlotti, former chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission, does not get it. Last year, he tried to keep The Journal from seeing letters sent regarding finalists. On Friday, he reiterated that releasing letters might “discourage people who might write us with derogatory comments about applicants, being afraid that those comments would be made public and then they’d have to pay the price.”

But the attorney general said Carlotti’s interpretation of the law was wrong, and the letters he released contained no negative comments. Carlotti talked about the “cost to transparency,” ignoring the cost of secrecy, which erodes public confidence.

Carlotti said he wonders “if the system we have created is, in fact, the right system.” He said he’d prefer a system that gives the governor greater “flexibility” to choose judges who share his philosophy. The governor would pick finalists and a commission would analyze them — “not in public, by the way” — before releasing ratings, he said.

Whatever the merits of the system favored by Carlotti, stewards of the current process (favored by 69.9 percentage of voters in 1994) should recognize the value of openness — an openness born of scandal and disgust with how those in power exercised their flexibility.

The process does need improvement. The JNC needs its own staff, better office space and funding. As Carlotti said, “This is, in fact, a neglected institution.” And as Common Cause executive director John M. Marion said, officials need to stop undermining and attacking the process. “We have the skeleton of a good system in place,” he said. “And now we have to put some muscle behind it.”

Friday, November 6, 2009

Twin River seeks to hire former R.I. Lottery lawyer

By Paul Grimaldi

Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE — The lenders in control of the Twin River greyhound track and slot parlor have asked a federal judge for permission to hire the former legal counsel for the Rhode Island Lottery as a government-relations consultant, according to a court filing.

Robert M. Silva was the Lottery’s lawyer for 16 years, before retiring in May 2008, according to the Nov. 4 filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Providence. During that time, “Silva was intimately involved in a number of transactions between the [Rhode Island] Lottery and [the slot parlor], including the transfer of the [slot parlor’s] video lottery terminal license from its prior holder” in 2005.

The company that operates Twin River, UTGR Inc., filed for federal bankruptcy protection in June. It appears Silva’s hiring would be consistent with the state’s code of ethics, which generally prevents state employees from representing themselves or others before their former departments for one year after their state employment ends.

As the Lottery’s lawyer, Silva would not have been required to file financial disclosure statements with the state ethics commission, according to Jason Gramitt, staff lawyer with the Ethics Commission. There appear to be no rulings involving Silva on record.

The executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island, John M. Marion, said Silva “satisfied the revolving door [prohibition]. He’s been out a year. He can make the jump.”

UTGR is a subsidiary of BLB Investors, a holding company made up of Kerzner International, Starwood Capital Group and Waterford Group LLC.

UTGR owed nearly $568 million to banks and other creditors, but had only $56.6 million in assets, when it filed for bankruptcy protection. Merrill Lynch Capital Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and JPMorgan Chase Bank are among the lenders to whom it owes money.

Twin River’s lenders will pay Silva $5,000 month, plus expenses, to lobby state officials on the slot parlor’s behalf.

Lottery Director Gerald Aubin said yesterday that he last met with Silva sometime in late summer when the two men had lunch together.

Silva gave him no indication at that time that he was under consideration for a job associated with Twin River.

What’s unclear at this point is what legal spadework Silva may have done that could lead Twin River to become more profitable after he left his job.

“What did he do to position Twin River that now they can try to hire him?” Marion asked.

The request goes before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Arthur N. Votolato on Nov. 17.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Suggested gift for the courts: A new judge

By Edward Fitzpatrick

Nearly a year has passed since District Court Chief Judge Albert E. DeRobbio Sr. died, yet Governor Carcieri has not nominated a replacement.

The Judicial Nominating Commission selected five finalists for the vacancy on June 3. Carcieri began interviewing at least some of the candidates before the commission had even picked those finalists (in careless disregard for the merit-selection process approved by voters in 1994). At the time, the governor’s spokeswoman explained that Carcieri had jumped the gun “out of an economy of time” so he could pick a nominee before the end of the legislative session. Yet here we are in November, and the governor has not chosen a nominee.

No doubt, the governor is facing a ballooning budget deficit and a deflating state economy, and he has made some fine picks to head the Supreme Court and Superior Court.

But state law says, “The governor shall fill any vacancy within 21 days of the public submission by the commission.” And while you might cut him slack for blowing the deadline once, Carcieri has made it a routine, leaving one Superior Court seat vacant for more than a year.

So why hasn’t the governor filled the top spot on the District Court — a busy venue that DeRobbio proudly called “the people’s court”? Why hasn’t he picked from a list that includes four District Court judges?

Carcieri spokeswoman Amy Kempe said, “The governor made a flurry of judicial appointments in the last few weeks of the General Assembly session, and he is continuing the vetting process. The chief judge of the District Court is a very important position of a very busy court system, and the governor wants to make sure he has the opportunity to meet with all the candidates and appoint the best person for the job.”

Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John M. Marion said governors originally had seven days to pick from lists of finalists. That deadline was extended to 21 days, but now Carcieri is “wholesale ignoring it” and, with no penalty for missing it, he “feels free to disregard it,” he said.

Yet appointing judges “is one of the core responsibilities of the executive. It should be a priority rather than an afterthought,” Marion said. “By not having a full complement of judges, we are not going to exercise the proper measure of justice. And it’s not just about justice. It’s about the legitimacy of government. If elected leaders don’t follow the law themselves, people lose faith.”

Rhode Island Bar Association President Victoria M. Almeida said, “While we would like appointments to be expeditious, it is more important to me and the bar that they be wise appointments.” She said the District Court “is not in paralysis,” acting Chief Judge Michael A. Higgins “has a long distinguished judicial career, and we have some of the best judges anywhere in that court.”

Almeida said, “Our democratic process, while imperfect, is more perfect than most, and it requires that judicial appointments receive the advice and consent of the Senate. Sometimes political consensus is necessary and is a challenge even in the most robust times.”

Still, if DeRobbio were alive, I bet he’d be urging the governor to act. In a January interview, Carcieri recalled that DeRobbio used to tell him, “Governor, I need [judges], I need them, get them to me, will you?” And as soon as he’d appoint one judge, DeRobbio would say, “Get the next one to me.”

So Carcieri need not wonder what to get the District Court for the holidays: a chief judge.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Newspapering the hard way

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG | November 4, 2009

Tom Heslin, executive editor of the Providence Journal, does not say much in public about the broadsheet. And little surprise. The ProJo, which demands transparency elsewhere, has issued a long string of “no comments” about its own affairs.

So Heslin’s keynote address at the annual meeting of Common Cause Rhode Island last week arrived with an air of anticipation. What sort of vision would he lay out for the state’s paper of record? What kind of strategy would he outline for an industry in freefall?

Heslin started his speech with an amusing anecdote from his first reporting job at the York County Coast Star in Maine — a tale of a harbor master who told him a bit too much about a spill during a telephone interview, believing he was from the York County Coast Guard.

Then he turned to a small inscription that appeared in the paper: THWTB, an abbreviation for “The Hard Way’s the Best” — a motto, Heslin suggested, that has guided his ca-reer in journalism. Make the extra phone call, the credo demands. Dig a little deeper. Do it the hard way.

It is an admonition from another era — a muscular charge that the ProJo aims to bring into the digital age, Heslin said.

But putting the executive editor’s vision into practice will be no small task. Doing it the hard way in an era of diminished resources is, well, hard. And placing an emphasis on the instantaneous, on-line update — a central project of Heslin’s ProJo — means less time for the rigorous reportage of the past.

That’s not to say anyone has a better idea for how to operate in an uncertain era.

The steady migration of advertising from print to the web, heavy layoffs, and the primacy of the 24-hour news cycle have papers across the country going shorter and shallower in their coverage, even as they try to keep up some semblance of the depth and perspective that separates the broadsheet from other media.

But the formula, however ubiquitous, does not appear to be working. Average weekday circulation at American newspapers for the six months ending September 30 was down 10.6 percent from last year, according to recently released data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. At the ProJo, the drop was nearly 19 percent.

And the paper’s parent company, Dallas-based A.H Belo, just reported that it lost $5.8 million for the third quarter — better than last year’s losses, but losses nonetheless. In-deed, the “hard way” is an apt description of the path forward for a newspaper industry in dire financial condition.

But Heslin seems remarkably upbeat about the future of the ProJo. In his speech at Common Cause, and in a question-and-answer period afterward, he had few answers to ques-tions about the long-term survival of the newspaper.

But he voiced confidence that the “journalism of verification” — the straight-news kind — would find a market, just as the “journalism of assertion” would. That an industry in crisis would find some equilibrium.

Here’s hoping.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Annual Meeting a Success!

On October 29th over 140 people interested in good government gathered at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet to celebrate past victories and look toward the future at the Common Cause Annual Meeting. We awarded the Distinguished Service Award to Warren Galkin and the Excellence in Public Service Award to Thomas Bender. Thomas Heslin, Executive Editor of the Providence Journal, spoke about the future of newspapers and answered questions from the audience.

In Johnston, appealing a zoning decision costs $2,000

By By Mark Reynolds

Journal Staff Writer
JOHNSTON — John Jalowy wonders if the local building official has made a bad call, but contesting the inspector’s zoning decision will cost $2,000.

The fee for that type of appeal ranges from $125 to $300 in five nearby communities. In Cranston, the appeal costs $500.

Not seeing anything remarkable about Johnston’s zoning process, Jalowy would like to know why it costs $2,000 in his town.

The answer is that Johnston officials boosted zoning fees in 2004 to bring more revenue to the town. Now, more than five years later, critics say the charge for zoning appeals simply discourages people from exercising their rights.

In the current economic climate, government officials should keep such consequences in mind if they are tempted to offset declining tax revenues by raising various types of fees, said John Marion, executive director of Rhode Island’s Common Cause chapter.

Charging residents $2,000 to appeal the local zoning officer is like charging speeders $2,000 to appear in traffic court and contest a speeding ticket, Marion said.

“People should have the ability to appeal the decisions of government that affect their lives,” he said.

The fee is so exorbitant that it might violate Jalowy’s due process rights under the state Constitution, according to his lawyer.

“If a fee is determined to be excessive, arbitrary and capricious, it would constitute a violation of one’s substantive due process rights,” said the lawyer, Terence Fracassa of Warwick.

Jalowy, acting through a lawyer, recently alleged that some people might be living in an accessory dwelling unit on a neighbor’s property, in violation of zoning laws, and he asked the town’s building official to investigate. On Oct. 20, the official, Bernard J. Nascenzi, ruled that the habitation is legal because the occupants are related to the neighbor.

When the council raised various zoning fees in 2004, George Corrente, who directed Johnston’s Building Department at the time and has since retired, argued that increasing the fees would capture an extra $150,000 to $160,000 in revenue each year.

Since then, the steeper fee schedule has helped the town collect greater revenue from zoning activities, such as issuing building permits.

But the appeals business isn’t booming. Nascenzi is proud to say he’s only seen one appeal since he started working for Johnston in 2005.

That appeal was filed by CapLease, a company and local taxpayer that recently listed $1.6 billion in property assets on its balance sheet and reported more than $89 million in revenues during the first six months of 2009.

CapLease, the owner of FM Global’s former headquarters building, contested a building permit for the construction of FM Global’s new headquarters.

Jalowy, of 737 Central Ave., lives a few miles up the road from CapLease’s building.

He lacks the same resources for dealing with unfavorable zoning actions.

“The fee that he would have to pay to make such an appeal,” said Fracassa, “may make it very difficult, if not impossible, for him to pursue what he thinks is a right that is legitimate.”

Johnston’s zoning ordinance says that fees for various zoning permits, requests and appeals are “not to exceed actual costs incurred for mailing, legal advertising and professional services…”

It isn’t clear how town officials reconciled that language with the appeal fee when they set it at $2,000.

Nascenzi said the fee schedule was established before he started working for the town.

If someone can identify and document “a factual basis” for the $2,000 fee, it might not violate the state Constitution, Fracassa said. If officials studied the fee before they established it, there might be a report that contains such documentation, he said.

“I’m not sure if that has been done,” he added.

Johnston’s zoning ordinance also says that the local Planning Board shall review local zoning rules at reasonable intervals, no less than every five years, and also whenever changes are made to the town’s comprehensive plan.

More than five years have passed since the fee schedule changed and, this past July, at the request of the town’s planner, the Planning Board adopted a new comprehensive plan.

Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, who has been in office for almost three years, did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.

When Fracassa recently asked the Johnston Town Council to review the fee schedule, Polisena likened the excessive fee to other problems he inherited from his predecessor almost three years ago.

“I say this tongue in cheek,” Polisena told the council.

The council has agreed to have town lawyers review the fee and make a recommendation.

Said the Zoning Board’s lawyer, Joseph Ballirano:

“We’re here to serve the people, and help them, not to hurt them with excessive fees.”

Columnist Ed Fitzpatrick: Who should be redrawing districts after 2010 census?

At the Common Cause Rhode Island annual meeting, executive director John M. Marion pointed out an object looming on the political horizon: the once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps.

The Oct. 29 event drew about 140 people to Rhodes on the Pawtuxet. A flier noted that during its 39-year history, the “citizens’ lobby” has fought for an independent Ethics Commission, a merit-selection process for picking state judges and the “separation of powers” amendment to the state Constitution.

The flier also outlined the group’s “vision for tomorrow,” saying in part: “As we begin the next federal census in 2010, we will push for reforms that will make the goals of redistricting serve our citizens, and not the politicians. District boundaries should reflect communities, not incumbency protection.”

Marion said, “One of the leading problems in Rhode Island is that elections are not competitive. So we are going to try hard to make this the fairest redistricting it can be.”

I covered the last legislative redistricting process (in 2001 and 2002), and it was quite a ride, literally. I followed the redistricting commission from Woonsocket to Newport for public hearings. I wrote about the lawsuits and the charges of gerrymandering. I thought about compactness and contiguity. (And haven’t thought about them since.)

Back then, the process was especially complex and fraught with political peril because the General Assembly wasn’t just redistricting to reflect new census figures; it was also downsizing the House from 100 to 75 members and the Senate from 50 to 38 members to reflect a 1994 voter mandate.

Still, the next redistricting (based on 2010 census data) is bound to be intriguing. As Marion noted, “people are rewarded and punished politically with districts,” and with a battle under way to be the next House speaker, “the districts could reflect who supported the winners and who supported the losers.”

The process will also involve redrawing the congressional districts, and Marion warned that “somewhere down the road” Rhode Island could lose a district because it has some of the country’s least-populated congressional districts.

Redistricting is an intensely political process. But Marion noted that in 2008, California voters approved Proposition 11, which shifted the power to redraw many political maps from the state legislature to a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission. Also, he noted, the Ohio secretary of state is hosting a redistricting competition put on by groups such as Common Cause Ohio. The legislature will still redraw districts in 2011, but the contest will show what districts might look like based on criteria other than protecting incumbents.

Marion said Common Cause will push for a Rhode Island redistricting commission that does not include legislators or their representatives. A similar effort failed last time. But this time Common Cause also might create a “model redistricting commission” that would “show citizens what the maps could look like if politics was removed,” he said. (The idea comes from Yale Law School Prof. Heather Gerken.)

“Ultimately, I think the goal is to have something like California or Iowa, which is held up as a model, to have redistricting that isn’t done at the behest of the legislature,” Marion said. “The question is who should draw the districts — the people who have the most to gain by drawing districts that protect incumbents, or the voters who inhabit those districts?”

Journal editor underscores market for accurate news, suggests fee for online service

by John Howell

Nov 03, 2009

The day could soon come when the Providence Journal Company will charge readers for its online news.

Thomas E. Heslin, senior vice president and executive editor of the daily newspaper, suggested that possibility as he addressed the annual meeting of Common Cause Thursday at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet.

Heslin’s touched on the cost of providing accurate, timely and dependable information on the Internet during a presentation where he outlined recent changes in the newspaper and the Journal’s commitment to covering local Rhode Island news.

“We’re at a birth of a new era,” Heslin said emphasizing that the Journal is “holding on to values of accuracy, fairness and balance” in its 24-hour coverage on its Web site. Yet, he added, “the financial landscape of the news industry is very complex” and the company is looking at ways “to effectively and fairly charge for news content on the Web.”

And in a question-and-answer session following his prepared remarks he was asked directly if the Journal would charge for news on the Web.

Heslin said he is confident the business will transform itself and the Journal as well as newspapers across the country will find a way of providing content on the Kindle and e-readers.

“We want to be a multi-platform organization,” he said “We’ve just started. It hasn’t been invented yet.”

Heslin did not elaborate on how or when the Journal might start charging for content on its Web site.

Yet in his talk Heslin underscored the importance of the Web and how Journal reporters are reporting breaking news minutes after it has happened and with updates thereafter. He said standards of accuracy are in place and that “there is a market for verification.” As for the newspaper he used last Wednesday’s edition to illustrate the reach of the Journal’s 80 reporters and photographers in providing Rhode Islanders a picture of the community. In particular he cited coverage of the General Assembly and developments concerning the H1N1 or swine flu pandemic.

Of the company he said, “We aspire to be the news organization to set the agenda…this is the mirror…this is the big picture.”

In response to a question from Peter Von Stein, Heslin defended A.H. Belo, the parent company of the Journal, as “a pretty good newspaper publisher.”

Von Stein expressed concern over the Journal’s future, observing that the newspaper’s circulation dropped by 19 percent in the past year; that Belo has trimmed Journal operations and that Belo faces its own financial problems.

“How do you plan for a future in Rhode Island with absentee ownership,” asked Von Stein. “I’m troubled with people that have no interest in Rhode Island.”

“Most big complex media problems are not as simple as they seem on the face,” Heslin responded.

He said the Journal “run independently” and it is the “stewardship” of the newspaper that is important.

Heslin didn’t have an answer for the man who lamented the Journal’s reduction in local news coverage and his question who would be keeping an eye on municipal officials. But when former Representative Nick Gorham surmised people are more disenchanted with the General Assembly than ever Heslin said, “we are committed to covering the General Assembly.” He noted that in addition to coverage through the Journal’s Web site readers are able to biographies of legislators and votes on particular bills.

That was of interest to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. Marion would like to see a listing of all votes taken by legislators accessible on line.

Marion highlighted the organization’s mission “to hold our leaders accountable” adding “and that’s what we’re going to do.”

He said that Common Cause is “trying to rein in the money that taints our politics” and is moving forward with its agenda to see that when redistricting occurs, which will happen following the 2010 Census, that those districts are more representative of the community rather than designed to keep the incumbent in power.

Common Cause recognized Warren Galkin with the excellence in public service award and attorney Thomas Bender with the distinguished service award.

A longtime supporter of Common Cause, Galkin served as a member of the organization’s executive director and assistant director search committee.

In comments after receipt of the award from Common Cause President Kevin McAllister, Galkin spoke about the importance of good government adding, “for a state that’s in dire need of good government.”

As for the award Galkin said, “in this stage of life I’m not going to turn anything down and it doesn’t come much better than this.”

A member of the Common Cause Governing Board, Bender was recognized for his pro bono work and in particular two recent briefs filed with the Rhode Island Supreme Court in the cases of Irons v. The Rhode Island Ethics Commission, and In re Request for Advisory Opinion from the House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council).

In the Irons case, Bender argued that members of the General Assembly are not immune from the State Ethics Code while engaged in their legislative activities, and are not entitled to a jury trial when “probable cause” allegations of Ethics Code violations were found to exist. The Advisory Opinion sought by the Rhode Island House of Representatives sought the opinion of the Rhode Island Supreme Court on four issues involving the 2004 Separation of Powers Amendments to the Rhode Island Constitution, including whether those amendments were self-executing.

In his acceptance, Bender said it was a “privilege to do this kind of work.”