EXCLUSIVE: Councilwoman Says Taveras Broke Promise on Pool

Thursday, October 24, 2013

 

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A Providence city councilwoman is questioning the credibility of the Taveras administration after she says it broke a promise to replace a pool closed two years ago with a water park and instead used the money set aside for the work to pay down city debts.

Councilwoman Sabina Matos says she is now rethinking her support for Mayor Angel Taveras two years after the closure of the Joslin Recreation Center pool in her ward.

She says her experience calls into question his commitment to replace the Davey Lopes pool with a water park. “How much faith can we have that will happen?” Matos said, D-Ward 15, said. “How can the community trust that the Davey Lopes [pool] will be replaced if Joslin hasn’t been replaced?”

City ran out of funds for pool repair

Matos said she found out that the Joslin pool, at 17 Hyatt Street in Olneyville, was slated for closure after she took office in 2011. Matos said she was told the pool was in need of repairs and that there was not enough money for them. The cost of repairs would have been prohibitive, according to Councilman Michael Correia, whose ward borders the recreation center.

Correia blames the city for failing to maintain its infrastructure over the years. “For some reason … we never invested in infrastructure,” Correia said. “That’s why everything is falling apart.”

Matos said the administration promised to replace the pool with a water park.

In a June 20, 2011 letter, Beth Charlebois, the director of neighborhood parks and recreation services, told Matos that the city had “worked out an alternative plan to provide water play opportunities and other activities at Joslin Park.” Although the letter does not specify it, Matos said she had been assured the city planned a water park.

Matos saw an opportunity reinvent the center.

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She cobbled together a coalition of community organizations and neighborhood groups—including the Olneyville Housing Corporation, Meeting Street, and the Rhode Island chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Coalition. They went to work on brainstorming ideas for a complete makeover of the 3.7-acre site that included a new soccer court, remodeled gym, new playground, and a water park, according to an October 2012 master plan commissioned by the Olneyville Housing Corporation.

Matos committed $130,000 from a $240,000 discretionary fund that had been created for her ward using proceeds from a bond issued by the city over a decade ago.

But city officials had something different in mind for the money. Last fall, Matos caught wind of a plan to use it to pay off city debts. She complained to City Council President Michael Solomon. “I told them I had a plan for the money. You cannot take it,” Matos recalled. “The money was already committed to the neighborhood.”

Solomon told her the administration had promised to replace the funds, Matos said.

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City sank pool funds into debt service

But when she went looking for the money one year later, it was gone.

“It is true that at the time we agreed with the council that if there were projects that could be done quickly we would find a way to pay for them. However, the key was projects must be done quickly. It has now been nearly a year. We also made it very clear that this would not extend beyond the fiscal year. With the end of the fiscal year, that window has closed,” Michael D’Amico, the city administration director and acting chief of staff for Taveras, told Matos in a Sept. 20 e-mail.

That was news to Matos. “Nobody told me about that deadline,” Matos said. “Nobody.”

The deadline was all the more surprising given that the city had otherwise given every indication that it was on board with the project. The city parks and recreation department had formally gone out to bid for the project and it had not deployed an inflatable slide at the Joslin park because it had anticipated that the site would be under construction during the summer, according to Matos.

If the city really had needed to unburden itself of the replacement funds by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, the money easily could have been transferred over to the Olneyville Housing Corporation by June 30, Matos said.

In fact, she had been trying to get to the money months before then, according to e-mails and other documents she provided to GoLocalProv. She first asked for it at the beginning of the year, in a Feb. 12 e-mail to the Providence Council Chief of Staff Jake Bissaillon.

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The Joslin pool today.

Her request was passed on to the administration. Months went by. Finally, after going out to bid this summer, Matos could wait no longer, appealing directly to D’Amico in a Sept. 17 e-mail. In his response, D’Amico said the funds had been sitting unused in her discretionary account for well over a decade. He said city attorneys had told officials it needed to be spent on debt payments.

Matos, who took office just two years ago, says it was wrong to blame her for what happened on her predecessor’s watch.

But, for Matos, it’s a moot point since the city had already promised to replace the old funds—something she now suspects was never done. “To my knowledge, they took the money and never replaced it,” she said.

Not only was the $130,000 no longer available. But the entire $240,000 in the Ward 15 discretionary account had been emptied out to pay for city debts, according to Matos. She said the funding for the project—which had a total bill of $1.6 million to $3.5 million—had been contingent on the seed money from her. “So, basically, the whole project fell apart,” Matos said.

“I’m not asking for money. I had the money and they took it away,” Matos said.

Bissaillion and Solomon declined to comment. (Bissaillon would only say that Solomon was still awaiting information on the matter.)

Taveras spokesman David Ortiz refused to respond to a request for comment. The Taveras administration has previously reprimanded the director of the Davey Lopes Recreation Center for speaking to the media and issued a gag order barring staff at the center from talking to reporters.

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A rendering of community plans for the new park.

Councilwoman rethinks support for Taveras

Matos said she remains perplexed by the pushback she is getting from the Taveras administration over her plans for the Joslin Recreation Center. “I cannot see how they cannot see this was something that was going to benefit the … neighborhood,” Matos said. “To me it’s a no-brainer. I don’t know why it’s so hard for them to understand it.”

In an interview, Matos described herself as an early supporter of Taveras, saying she even shared campaign office space with him in 2010. When she was briefly weighing a run for mayor, she told reporters that she would run only if Taveras wasn’t in the race—presumably because he would instead be seeking the governor’s office. Given her past support for him, Matos said she would have expected much more attention to her queries from the administration.

“I’m disappointed,” she said.

But is she rethinking her support for Taveras? “As of right now, yes,” Matos said yesterday.

Questioning the mayor on Davey Lopes

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Matos’ story has added to the concerns of those who have opposed the closure of the Davey Lopes pool in the South Side of Providence.

“How could I allow the Mayor to cement the Davey Lopes pool if he hasn’t kept his word with the Joslin pool to build his spray stations,” said Councilman Davian Sanchez, who represents the neighborhoods surrounding Davey Lopes.

A local neighborhood activist agrees. “It gives me huge concern about the children’s future in Providence and their future in Rhode Island,” said Leah Williams Metts, a mother of four who lives in the lower South Side of Providence and works as a marketing director.

The closure of the pool, Williams Metts said, only adds to her concerns about the future of children in her neighborhood—a school system that she said is failing kids, teenage pregnancy, drug use, and a rising crime rate that she said led to a murder on her street and a shooting on her doorstep earlier this year.

“I am deeply saddened about this,” Williams Metts said.

Stephen Beale can be reached at sbeale@golocalprov.com. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews

 

Related Slideshow: Timeline of the Davey Lopes Recreation Center Pool Controversy

The controversy surrounding the Joslin Recreation Center Pool closure is just the latest city pool issue involving the Taveras administration. The pool at the Davey Lopes Recreation Center has been a highly contested issue since its closure in July of 2013. 

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July 2nd, 2013

Taveras Admin's Decision to close pool called Political and Racist  

 
Race:
 
“This is a class issue and a race issue. I'm angry and I've been this way for years. This administration (Taveras) is making it worse. We have them turning all the pools into what they're calling "safe pools," three and four feet deep--a swimmer can no longer use them,” said former State Representative Ray Rickman.
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July 2nd, 2013

Taveras Admin's Decision to close pool called Political and Racist

Politics: 
 
Councilman Kevin Jackson: “I'll tell you what I know. Our rec (recreation center) directors who run summer camps usually put together list of teens to work at these camps, to work at water parks. They were told that kids who put down they were in the district of any one of the council members who voted against the budget would not be hired.”
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July 9th, 2013

Youth Reaction

George Lindsey Jr. Age 13:
 
"It's been terrible since the pool's closed and it's been so hot. I've just been being in my house and sitting under the A/C. I go outside and play basketball, but then I come back in, because without the pool there's nothing else to do.
Being outside is just aggravating. People get into fights and stuff, but I don't want to get involved in that.  What I wish I could do is go to the pool. But we can't anymore since it's closed down."
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July 13th, 2013

City Report on Pool 

A report on Providence recreation written by a Mayoral Fellow to Angel Taveras – which was leaked to GoLocalProv -- showed that the city administration ignored its own commissioned analysis, while it has systematically reduced recreation services, notably the closing of city pools.
 
The report, drafted for the City by fellow Matthew Kramer, was presented to key members of the Taveras administration in August of 2011, and made strong recommendations about improving existing recreation infrastructure and expanding programs for city youth.
 
Read more GoLocal Prov coverage here. 
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July 15th, 2013

Crackdown on Employees Speaking About Pools

In July, the City of Providence has reportedly wrote up Davey Lopes Recreation Center Director George Lindsey following several stories which saw members of the community speaking out to express their concerns for the lack of swimming options during the recent heart wave, with the closing of the Davey Lopes pool coming on the heels of the shuttering of the Joslin Recreation Center pool last year.
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July 15th, 2013

Rep. Williams Calls on Taveras to Open Pool

Representative Anastasia P. Williams (D), who has represented District 9 in Providence since 1992, sent an official letter to Mayor Taveras calling for a "practical solution" to addressing the closure of the Davey Lopes pool in South Providence.
 
Read the Letter here
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July 16th, 2013

Council Statements: Councilman Terrence Hassett

"How can you isolate kids like this, and not let them swim.  I just think that's improper. These are young impressionable kids, who making friends at the pools, spending time with their families. What's better than that?"
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July 16th, 2013

Council Statements: Councilman Kevin Jackson

"We need to make sure this doesn't happen again.  I believe the City knew what they were going to do, and just didn't reach out to us to give us enough time or options."
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July 16th, 2013

Councilwoman Carmen Castillo

"I've reached out to [Councilman Sanchez] to work with him on this. I want to work with him to find out more about what can be done to reopen the pool."
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July 16th, 2013

Councilman Nicholas Narducci

"I don't think we should be closing any recreational opportunities for kids right now.  When you're having murders, violence, it's not time to cut the programs."
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July 16th, 2013

Councilman Michael Correia

"Out of all honesty...this pool has been in this position for quite some time.  The lower end had been used, but the deep end had been filled in. This isn't something that has happened over night. It's another piece of city property that's being neglected.  Everyone should have gotten together sooner to address the issue in order the fix the issue, either it was overlooked, or neglected."
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July 16th, 2013

Councilman Luis Aponte

"The city's attempts to close pools, or replace them with waterparks...it's about insurance, liability.  It's not lost on us."  
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July 16th, 2013

Councilman Davian Sanchez

"At our rally, we got a petition with over 300 signatures to keep the pool open. Since then, I've got a lot of phone calls, and they've all been positive. Most of the council supports this. State reps and senators have come out in support of this. And it's being held up by one person...the mayor."
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July 16th, 2013

Councilman Samuel Zurier

"I have no comment. I don't have enough information at this point."
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July 29th, 2013

ACLU Letter

A letter sent to the ACLU of Rhode Island by Providence City Council candidate Anthony Sionni claimed that the City of Providence violated its charter because "city residents have been denied the right to petition the Recreational Advisory Board as provided by the City Charter because that board is not presently in existence."
 
Read the letter here
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October 18th, 2013

Contractors Offer to Repair Davey Lopes Pool

Providence City Councilman Davian Sanchez announced Thursday that several minority contractor associations in Providence are "willing to provide the complete the necessary repairs" of the Davey Lopes pool that was the center of controversy this summer when closed.
 
Read more GoLocal Prov coverage here 
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October 21st, 2013

Sanchez: Taveras Threatened to Cement Over Pool

Elected officials, neighborhood leaders, and community supporters turned out Monday morning at Davey Lopes Recreation Center in South Providence in support of keeping the center pool open, with the aid of contractors offering free labor to fix the pool -- which City Councilman Davian Sanchez said he was told by the Mayor's office would be cemented if he didn't vote for the budget.
 
"I was told by an aide of the Mayor -- who was just a messenger -- that if I didn't vote for the budget, the pool would be closed, and ultimately cemented," said Sanchez.  
 
 

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