Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Common Cause calls for pause to redistricting process

Common Cause Rhode Island issued the following statement regarding the redistricting process in Rhode Island:

Common Cause Rhode Island expresses deep disappointment about the drawing of the proposed maps for Rhode Island’s congressional districts. The proposed maps, designated as “Plan E,” move over 100,000 people according to media reports, when the legal requirement to reapportion required a shift of approximately 7200 people. We believe the redistricting commission has not done due diligence in preparing these plans, using incomplete information to justify their decisions. Common Cause believes the commission should halt the process and wait until all of the necessary information is available before proceeding.

In 2010 Common Cause introduced legislation that would have prohibited the redistricting commission from considering the home address of incumbent politicians in the production of plans. In the first hearings of the commission in 2011 we asked that they not protect incumbents in this process. Both efforts were met with silence. We believe that no districts should be drawn to protect an incumbent politician, or advantage a particular candidate, whoever they may be.

While the commission’s consultant has publicly stated his intent to maximize minority representation with the current plans, including those for the General Assembly, we believe there is no way to assess that claim at this point. The redistricting commission has yet to receive any information about the turnout or voting behavior of the minority communities in Rhode Island, information that is necessary to determine whether districts viably meet the majority minority designation. According to a report by WPRI’s Ted Nesi, Congressman David Cicilline’s campaign had access to such information. The commission’s failure to receive this information is a result of Rhode Island being the only state in the nation to not fully participate in Phase II of the Census redistricting program.

Because of the lack of necessary information we believe this process should not move forward at this time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My draft congressional plans

At the Monday, December 5th hearing of the Reapportionment Commission I, John Marion, promised to put my draft maps for CD 1 and CD 2 on this website. Please scroll down and read the entry titled "Redrawing Rhode Island" for my maps and explanation. Note, these maps drawn by John Marion and are not endorsed by Common Cause or Common Cause Rhode Island.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Draft Congressional maps for Rhode Island

On Monday, November 28th, three draft plans for redrawing Rhode Island's congressional districts were publicly released at a meeting of the state's reapportionment commission. Unfortunately those maps are not yet available online. Although certainly not an optimal solution, I'm posting the drafts, with brief explanations, here.

First up are the existing districts. This plan puts 19 cities and towns in each of our two districts and splits Providence roughly in half.

The first draft plan, labeled "Plan A"makes some drastic alterations to the current districts. It shifts Burrillville, Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport, Little Compton and Tiverton to CD2 from CD1. To balance population CD1 would receive seemingly all of Providence.

Draft "Plan B" takes a different approach. In addition to Burrillville, North Smithfield, Cumberland, Woonsocket, Lincoln, and Jamestown are added to CD2. Johnston, in turn, is moved to CD1 and seemingly so is the balance of Providence.

Finally there is "Plan C." This version moves Burrillville to CD2 and makes some changes to Providence.

We were assured that high resolution versions that will allow closer examination of these plans will be made publicly available soon. Let's hope.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Private caucuses no substitute for public deliberation

The Democratic members of the Senate caucused last weed at a private restaurant to discuss the pension reform bill being considered during the special legislative session. Setting aside for a minute the fact that campaign money was probably used to pay for meals, instead of actual campaigning, this type of secret deliberation is troubling. And with the House Democrats poised to caucus today (Monday, November 7th) the question needs to be ask, is this a transparent process?

Common Cause has consistently been asking for public release of any amendments to Rhode Island Retirement Security Act of 2011. General Treasurer Gina Raimondo has said that there will be 37 proposed changes coming from her office, including one that is a result of a serious error. The General Assembly leadership has been silent on the question of whether the amendments will be released publicly. Our elected leaders will be voting soon on amendments that the public has no chance to see in advance, and that may only have been discussed at private party caucuses.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Redrawing Rhode Island

Recently I had a chance to try my hand at redistricting Rhode Island. I made an appointment with Election Data Services and was invited to room B-5 to take a crack at drawing some lines using the same software being used by the official Reapportionment Commission. To make things easy I first tried my hand at creating two congressional districts. Because of shifts in the population in Rhode Island, a little over 7,000 people need to be moved from CD2 to CD1. Dividing a pie in half would be easy, right? Wrong.

Recently Rhode Island's members of Congress sent a joint letter to our commission requesting that, much as it does now, all communities be kept intact with the exception of Providence. My first map (diagram to your right) tried this. Although it's hard to tell, I moved the line between CD1 and CD2 within the City of Providence, but kept historic neighborhood boundaries in place. This map got me within a 100 person difference, or 0.01 percent, between the two districts. Courts have consistently said that congressional districts must be within 1% of each other so as not to violate the principle of one person, one vote.

Is that the only way to divide the pie in half? Certainly not. My second attempt started with the idea that Burrillville should be moved from CD1 to CD2. Why? well mistakenly I thought Burrillville was not considered part of the Blackstone Valley, and had more in common with Gloucester and Foster than Smithfield and Pawtucket. Of course I later discovered that both Burrillville and Glocester are considered part of the Blackstone Valley.

Nonetheless, operating under my false assumption, I moved Burrillville over to CD2 and took more of Providence for CD1. The result was a districts that is a more visually appealing split of the state. And again, I was able to keep the population difference between the two districts within several hundred, thus satisfying the 1% standard, and able to keep Providence neighborhoods intact. Of course visual appearance is just one of many, many criteria that can be applied to the creation of legislative districts.

The simple exercise of dividing Rhode Island into two equal parts illustrates the difficulty of this process, and the need for contextual information. Creating 75 House districts and 38 Senate districts is more difficult by an order of magnitude than this simple illustration. Factor in matters of race, ethnicity, partisan competition, geographical compactness and contiguity, and the process gets more and more difficult.

Common Cause urges the public to get involved in the process by submitting your own maps. You can do as I did and use the official software to draw some lines, or take a first shot at it by using a free online tool called Dave's Redistricting Software. The official software allows you to draw districts using the exact data used by the commission, down to the very small Census block tract. Dave's Redistricting Software uses the Census block group data which is an aggregation of Census block tracts. Nonetheless it is a great way to start without having to leave your house.

If you have any questions or concerns, please give us a call at Common Cause Rhode Island at 401-861-2322, or drop us a note at contact@commoncauseri.org and we'll be happy to help you. Happy redistricting!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Common Cause seeks greater transparency during pension deliberations

On September 30th Common Cause Rhode Island sent a letter to every member of the General Assembly requesting greater transparency and accessibility during this fall's pension reform session. On Tuesday, October 18th we saw the results of that when the House and Senate reconvened to introduce the Retirement Security Act of 2011. Both chambers of the Assembly are operating under rules applicable for only special sessions (House rule 40 and Senate rule 10.7) which skirt the normal processes for public notice.

The House of Representatives did pass H 6322 which provides a seven day waiting period between any vote in the House Finance Committee and consideration of the bill on the House floor. It also requires members of the House to submit any amendments 48 hours in advance of the scheduled consideration of the bill by the entire House. The Senate, however, has not even provided for this minimum level of transparency.

We are pleased about the creation of a new website, www.pensionreformri.com, and hope that the ability for the public to comment through that portal is used in a meaningful way.

Common Cause sent letters to the House and Senate leaders requesting further steps to make sure public participation is meaningful by moving hearings on the bill to a more accessible location. We also asked for any amendments to the bill to be made public in advance of their consideration. There is still time to make this process more transparent and accessible to the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders directly affected, and the hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders interested in the process.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

41st Common Cause Annual Meeting--The Future of Reform in Rhode Island

You are invited to the 41st Common Cause Annual Meeting on October 5th, 2011.

We are please to present a discussion about . . .

In addition, we will be presenting the Excellence in Public Service award to;
Robert C. Corrente, former U.S. Attorney
Beverly Clay, former V.P. Operation Clean Government

For information about tickets, please call 861-2322 or email contact@commoncauseri.org

We hope you can join us on October 5th!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Did you receive our newsletter?

At Common Cause Rhode Island, we strive to keep you informed about the latest efforts to reform our government. Our most recent newsletter, which you can download here, reviews our hits and misses during the 2011 legislative session. It also talks about our upcoming Annual Meeting on October 5th, when we'll be discussing "The Future of Reform."

For decades we relied exclusively on newsletters to send that message. That is no longer the case. If you have received this, you are signed up to get our e-alerts. Increasingly, we rely on our Facebook page and Twitter stream. However you chose to follow us, we're glad you are listening.

If you did not receive our latest newsletter and would like us to mail one to you, please give us a call at 861-2322 or reply to this email. We'll be happy to drop one in the mail to you.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Tuesday, June 28th, Common Cause released a report looking at a decade of "Access" to the General Assembly. The report is a follow-up to the groundbreaking 1998 report by then Secretary of State James Langevin and Brown University, "Access Denied." While compliance with the Open Meetings Act by the legislature has improved, the percentage of violations that occur at the end of the session has increased dramatically. You can find the study here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Community forum on proposed I-195 Redevelopment District Commission

BetterProvidence & Common Cause RI



on the

Proposed creation of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission


6:00 – 7:30 PM

Doors open at 5:00 pm

The Spot Underground

15 Elbow St., Providence, RI 02903

With the surprising announcement of a proposed I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, uncertainty hangs over the state-owned land in Providence’s Jewelry District. With legislation to create the commission moving through the General Assembly this forum provides an opportunity to bring public officials, and other key stakeholders together so the public can ask questions about the rapidly evolving proposal. Some key areas to be discussed include:

  • Does the proposed Commission best serve the public interest, including the people of the City of Providence, as well as the State of Rhode Island?
  • Has there been sufficient public input in the legislative process?
  • Is the proposed commission an effective way to ensure efficient economic development of this large State-owned land parcel in Providence -- or is it “the next secure feed bag for the well-connected,” as described by the Providence Journal editors?

Moderator: Mike Ritz, Executive Director of Leadership Rhode Island and I Heart Providence

Invitations to speak have been extended to:

· The sponsors of the legislation and General Assembly leadership

· The Mayor of Providence

· The Governor of Rhode Island

· The Rhode Island Attorney General

· The Jewelry District Association

Forum co-sponsors:

The Jewelry District Association

Greater City: Providence

American Institute of Architects Rhode Island

This event is free and open to the public.

Media coverage is invited.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Common Cause on redistricting in Rhode Island

Today, May 19th, Common Cause executive director John Marion gave the following testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on S 924, a bill to create the official reapportionment commission for our state:

Reapportionment and redistricting are crucially important exercises in our democratic system of government. Reapportionment, the process of ensuring that districts are of equal population is at the heart of the principle of “one person, one vote” that we enjoy because of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Redistricting, the process of drawing political boundaries, has been the subject of mischief for the two centuries since the original gerrymander occurred in Massachusetts in 1811.

Rhode Island has one of the most partisan, and least constrained redistricting processes in the United States. This bill would just continue the same partisan and legislatively dominated process we have seen in decades past. I would like to take this opportunity to point out some of the glaring weaknesses in the bill.

The commission, as proposed, consists of 18 members; four each appointed by the Speaker and President and two each by the Minority leaders of the respective chambers. The remaining six members of the commission will come from what the bill describes as the “public,” but who are chosen by the Speaker and President respectively.

This design guarantees a partisan process with no independence. With a majority of seats (14 of 18) being chosen by leadership of the majority party, partisan redistricting cannot be prevented. And with public members being chosen by legislative leadership, without any stated process for citizens to apply for the seats, there is no measure of independence from legislative control. Under the proposed commission the real public has no confidence they are being represented in this process. Six states use independent commission where the legislature does not have control of the appointments, and the American Bar Association recommends that all states follow suit.

Additionally, while the legislation laudably proposes public hearings, no standards are set for the number or location. Given the impact of the redistricting and reapportionment processes on every citizen of Rhode Island, some minimum number and geographical dispersion should be articulated in the bill. Furthermore, public comment needs to be taken before the draft plan is created (as is specified in the proposed statute), as well as after the plans are drawn, so that the public can have maximum input. I have submitted model legislation designed by the Campaign Legal Center that deals with some of these issues regarding public access to the process.

The most important part of the legislation are the standards its sets for the redistricting process. Almost every state has a commission that must abide by stricter standards than those proposed here. The proposed legislation sets a bare minimum of standards. Other jurisdictions seek greater equality of population (2% rather than the legal maximum of 5%) for reapportioning state legislative districts. Other states add greater definition to the measures of compactness and contiguity. The use of minimum standards for reapportionment, and opaque definitions of compactness and contiguity allow for maximum flexibility in gerrymandering.

When it comes to protecting the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, this bill again falls short. 24 states give greater emphasis to providing representation for the historically underrepresented by mandating that “communities of interest” are taken into consideration. The proposed commission does not have any requirements for diversity in the membership of the commissioners.

The standards the commission abides by should be prioritized in the legislation. Without a ranking the standards relative weights cannot be given to the priorities. The commission, the public, and the courts who may eventually pass judgment on a plan do not know what to expect.

As you can see we have a lot of problems with how this is being done. We are happy to work with the sponsor and the committee to improve this bill and improve this process.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Clearer water in the Ocean State

This week the Rhode Island General Assembly made a small bit of history; for the first time it began putting copies of committee votes online. OK, maybe that’s not worthy of being called a historical achievement, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Common Cause Rhode Island, along with other government reform groups, worked with the legislative leadership to bring about this change. Along with the earlier addition of floor votes online, this brings a needed level of transparency to our lawmaking branch of government.

By any measure, the website of the General Assembly trails its peers, and the public is poorer because of it. If Justice Lewis Brandeis, who said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” is correct, then Rhode Island has been living in the dark ages. This change starts to peel back on the opaque legislative process to reveal how our committees work, and provide a tool for the citizens of Rhode Island to hold their elected representatives responsible.

Of course there are more changes we would like to see. For one, we would like it if the General Assembly would join the ranks of the 49 other states plus the District of Columbia who have live streaming of their legislatures online. And Common Cause Rhode Island will continue to work toward that. But it’s worth taking a timeout to appreciate what we have accomplished so far. So three cheers for some transparency in Rhode Island.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ethics panel must have authority over legislators

On April 13th, the following Op-ed by John Marion and Amy Goins appeared in the Newport Daily News.

Ethics panel must have authority over legislators

by John Marion and Amy Goins

Should members of the General Assembly, our most important elective body, be immune from the ethics laws that govern all other elected and appointed officials? According to the March 2nd Guest View column by Steven Brown of the American Civil Liberties Union, the answer is yes. Common Cause couldn’t disagree more. Not only do we believe that Mr. Brown is incorrect in asserting that the Ethics Commission is anathema to a democratic system of government, we assert that strong ethics enforcement is important to an economically vibrant state.

But first, some background is in order. In June of 2009 the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the “speech in debate” clause of the state Constitution provides immunity from prosecution for members of the General Assembly. The Court reasoned that this immunity trumps the ethics amendment that was passed in 1986 and created a commission with jurisdiction over “all elected and appointed officials.”

In response to that ruling, Common Cause has proposed a constitutional amendment be put on the ballot to allow for a limited repeal of the “speech in debate” clause to restore the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. A resolution to put such a repeal on the ballot passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives on a vote of 68-5 last year before dying in the Senate. This year those resolutions are sponsored by Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate) in the House (H 5410) and Senator Edward O’Neill (I-Lincoln) in the Senate (S 634).

The crux of the ACLU’s argument against our amendment is that the Ethics Commission as an “unelected body” should not have their jurisdiction restored because they have the power to “adopt a legally enforceable code of ethics.” This should not be a matter of concern. There are many examples where the state cedes authority to appointed officials. The entire judicial branch, thankfully, is chosen exclusively by appointment. Appointed boards and commissions that perform quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial functions exercise much of the authority of the executive branch.

In fact, the “unelected” nature of the body is exactly what makes the Commission effective. The alternative used in many other states, and in the United States Senate, is an internal ethics body; the “self-policing” model. Those models fail because of a lack of independence. It is against human nature to punish oneself.

Mr. Brown bolsters his argument by citing a letter that Governor Carcieri sent requesting that the Commission dramatically broaden the definition of a conflict of interest. What Mr. Brown fails to mention is that anyone can write a letter to the Commission asking them to make changes to the Code of Ethics. Again, a perceived weakness is actually a strength. Any citizen of Rhode Island can file a complaint, or propose a regulatory change.

This is not just an academic debate over the meaning of representative democracy. Every citizen of Rhode Island should be concerned about the lack of jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission because conflict of interest and political corruption are real threats to our economic well-being. Recent history shows that the legislature needs a vigorous ethics watchdog. In the last decade now Speaker Gordon Fox, former Senate President Joseph Montalbano, and former Senate Corporations Committee Chair John Celona, were all fined by the Ethics Commission. A robust watchdog of legislative ethics is clearly needed.

Restoring the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over state legislators will also help to counteract Rhode Island’s image as a haven for corruption and lead to a stronger economy. Political corruption results in significant economic costs to states. In states where corruption is rampant, businesses face pressure to bribe public officials, and an uncertain business climate prevails. . Because of the higher cost of doing business, firms are discouraged from operating in corrupt states. Corruption is directly correlated to negative job growth. Restoring the Ethics Commission’s oversight of state legislators is not only good public policy, but also good for our economy.

While a dizzying number of initiative are being considered at the State House, we hope those doing the peoples’ business don’t forget this important issue. Until the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission is restored the General Assembly operates without a needed mechanism for accountability.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Common Cause and Operation Clean Government call on Governor Chafee to reconsider Ethics Commission Appointment

On Thursday, April 14th, Common Cause and Operation Clean Government called on Governor Chafee to reconsider his recent appointment of a police chief to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. Both groups feel strongly that an independent ethics watchdog should not have members who are also public officials. Here is our press release:

Common Cause Rhode Island and Operation Clean Government call on Governor Lincoln Chafee to reconsider his appointment of Barrington Police Chief John M. LaCross to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. "We question the legality of Chief LaCross's appointment to the Ethics Commission given the statutory restrictions on who may be placed on this important body," says John Marion, executive director of Common Cause. "Our objection has nothing to do with Chief LaCross," Marion continues, "rather we are concerned with whether his appointment violates the state law barring those who hold public office from sitting on the Commission."

Section 36-14-8 (f)(1) of the Rhode Island General Laws prohibits anyone who sits on the Commission to "Hold or campaign for any other public office." Common Cause believes that statute disqualifies Chief LaCross from sitting on the Commission since Chief LaCross already holds a "public office" as the police chief in Barrington. The obvious intent of the prohibition from serving in another public office while serving on the Ethics Commission is to keep the members of the Ethics Commission as unbiased as possible, consistent with the Constitutional mandate (Article III, Section 8) that members of the Commission be both independent and non-partisan. The proposed appointment of Chief LaCross would contradict both the statutory prohibition and the intent of the framers of the Constitution and would be a significant departure from the goal of an independent Ethics Commission. "Since all elected and appointed state and municipal officials are subject to the ethics code, Operation Clean Government is concerned about appointing any serving public official to the Ethics Commission," says Margaret Kane, president of Operation Clean Government.

The Rhode Island Ethics Commission was created in 1986 by the voters of the state following that year's constitutional convention. Article III, Section 8 of the Constitution calls for an "independent non-partisan ethics commission." Common Cause has fought for more than two decades to ensure the Commission maintains its independence. Under state law only Governor Chafee can reconcile this problem, so Common Cause asks that he do so immediately, before Chief LaCross is sworn in as a member of the Commission.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Let's Move Forward on Legislative Staff Issues

In recent weeks there has been an uproar over raises for staff of the Rhode Island General Assembly. Handling personnel of the legislative branch has been an issue for decades in Rhode Island, and was part of a focus of commissions in both the 1980s and 1990s. As a result of the work of those commissions we have seen drastic reforms of other parts of the General Assembly, including the elimination of legislative pensions, and a downsizing in the number of lawmakers. It's time to finish the work by focusing on legislative personnel.

Common Cause, along with the coalition Citizens for an Accountable Legislature has proposed a possible solution. We propose the creation of a position classification plan by a joint commission of the General Assembly. Such a plan would help organize the staff in a transparent and accountable manner by requiring job descriptions, pay scales, and an organizational hierarchy. Using such a plan to manage its employees will allow the General Assembly to create a career ladder for all legislative employees.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Two Tales of Open Government

All eyes have been on the state of Wisconsin for the past few weeks as the state legislature pushed through a law restricting collective bargaining rights for public workers. On March 18th a County Court Judge issued an order preventing the Secretary of State from publishing the law because of a . . . open meetings violation. In the Judge's words:

“I think a legitimate question might be asked, how can something so apparently minor – the failure to provide timely notice prior to a meeting that led to the enactment of the 2011 Wisconsin 10 - how can a minor failure of notice really halt this bill in its tracks?

And my answer to that is - it’s not minor. It’s not a minor detail. . . [W]e in Wisconsin own our government. We own it. And we own it in three ways. We own it by the vote. We own it by the duty to provide open and public access to records so that the activities of government can be monitored. And we own it in that we are entitled by law to free and open access to governmental meetings, and especially governmental meetings that lead to the resolution of very highly conflicted and controversial matters.

That’s our right. And a violation of that right is tantamount to a violation of what is already provided in the Constitution, open doors, open access, and that northing in this government happens in secret.”

Meanwhile, on March 29th, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued an opinion in a case involving the Central Falls receivership law. That law was introduced on June 8th, 2010 for the very first time, and signed into law three days later by the Governor on June 11th. Regardless of what you think about the substance of either issue, it's quite a stark contrast.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New House and Senate Rules

Tuesday, February 15th, the Rules Committees of the Rhode Island House and Senate will take up their rules for 2011-2012. There are a number of very significant changes, especially in the House Rules this year. You can read more about them here. Common Cause is very pleased with most of the changes to the House rules, including:
  • Putting floor votes online
  • Moving toward putting committee votes online
  • Providing for an audio recording of all non-televised committee hearings
  • Not allowing new bills to be introduced after 11:30 pm.
We remain skeptical of several rules changes, including the new inclement weather policy that allows the House to roll over to the next day all their committee agendas rather than post them again with 48 hours notice. We are also skeptical of the Senate rules change limiting public access to the floor 10 minutes prior to the scheduled beginning of the session.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

General Assembly to put votes online, in real time

According to today's Providence Journal the when the Rhode Island General Assembly convenes today it will put its votes online, in real time. This is an important move toward a more transparent legislative process, and Common Cause salutes the Assembly for taking this step.