[Note: This report would not be possible without the excellent work of Selene Means, who attended, recorded and took notes and photos of the March 22 Providence City Council Ordinance Committee meeting. My job in this was to write it up.]
After quickly approving the new, revised Community Safety Act and sending it to the full city council for a public hearing (scheduled for 5:30pm on Monday, April 10), the Providence City Council Ordinance Committee, chaired by Councilor Terrence Hassett took up Councilor Seth Yurdin‘s divestiture ordinance, which would prevent the City of Providence from doing business with banks investing in the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Specifically, the ordinance seems to target the relationship between Providence and Citizens Bank, which has extensive investments in DAPL and many other pipelines.
To the surprise of those who came in support of the ordinance, Hassett made the decision to allow people to testify, “within limitations, of course, because this is still a moving document… we want to make sure we do it justice.”
Hassett noted that, “we normally don’t take public testimony in committee [but] considering that this is a larger issue, we believe that the more dialog that is actually afforded this issue that is to be discussed.” Hassett then invited Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, to speak. It was obvious to those in support of the ordinance that Hassett was not making an exception to his policy out of some newfound sense of openness and transparency, he was doing it because important, connected business concerns were insisting that he do so.
“Our doors are open,” said Hassett, “I know there has been some suggestion that we haven’t been transparent. This is not a simple, 1-2-3, kind of thing. This has impact.”
White’s testimony, which can be heard in the video below beginning at 10m45s, ran the gamut from silly to morally repugnant. She called the point of the ordinance, which will have the dual effect of helping to save the planet and the rights of indigenous people, “random” and compared environmental and human rights concerns to an aversion to polka dots. To White, free enterprise and free markets are more important that human rights or the environment.
“The reasons for our opposition are many, but the most fundamental reason is that it sets Providence on a dangerous and slippery slope,” said White, “The fine print of this ordinance specifies that it’s directed at pipelines, but what could be in the cross-hairs next? Doing business with companies that sell soda, or garden hoses, or a polka dot ties, or provide paper towels, you get the point.
“This kind of random thinking is an infringement on free enterprise and the consumers right to make their own economic choices. In these uncertain economic times it’s more important than ever that Providence and the community around us unite in helping to attract good jobs.
“Now Citizens’ recent decision to to recommit to Rhode Island by building a new campus for thousands of employees is one recent sign that we are sending a clear message that Rhode island is open for business. So let me state very clearly that what’s good for Rhode Island is good for Providence and vice versa.
“In his February state of the city speech, Mayor [Jorge] Elorza was very clear, touting a number of significant projects currently under construction, roughly 25 of them and another 28 in the application process. [The Mayor] believes and we agree that these projects will bolster job creation, create new businesses, and create innovative projects all across this city’s neighborhoods.
“If this proposed ordinance was addressing business practices posing actual or potential harm to the residents of Providence, the [City] Council’s consideration of the matter might be more understandable. However, this proposed ordinance is driven by opposition to a federally approved project, a project that is being carried out more than a thousand miles away by a lawful entity that has met every requirement necessary.
“While reasonable people can debate opinions on energy independence, we can debate on the extent of environmental reviews and other matters, the fact is that the Providence City Council is placing the narrow agenda of a few interest groups above the economic well being of the entire city. And the prospect of business decisions being reversed based on narrow considerations would give pause to any investor considering a move to or an expansion in Providence.
“The City of Providence’s economy, as we are all well aware, remains on very fragile fiscal ground, our government and business leaders are working very diligently and tirelessly to attract new businesses to the city and to grow the tax base, and to lighten the load on residents. And we’re starting to see cranes in the sky again. Ordinances such as this one, and the ones that are sure to follow if this were to be adopted, have the potential to stop that progress altogether.
“In summary, we believe that this ordinance should be rejected by the committee so that we can turn our collective attention to promoting the financial well being of all residents living and working in the city and ensuring that free enterprise and free markets are respected in Providence.”
Before Randy Noka of the Narragansett Indian Tribe (16m07s) spoke in favor of the ordinance, he noted that he and others in favor of the ordinance were “a little bit disadvantaged” because they were not expecting Hassett to open up the Ordinance Committee meeting up to public testimony. Many who would have taken the opportunity to speak at this meeting were not present because the meeting was to be one where committee members discussed the ordinance without public input. The impromptu nature of the public comment caught supporters off guard, but of course opponents of the ordinance were fully prepared, with written comments and public testimony at the ready.
“This is not just a business issue or concern that we raise,” said Noka, “This is a recognition of the violation of indigenous rights, the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.” The pipeline is not simply a business venture, said Noka, “Who in this room would want to see their ancestral grounds, their family’s burial grounds, desecrated? That’s what’s being done with this pipeline.
Citizens Bank has an opportunity to decide yes or no to get involved with these ventures that are violating people’s rights, said Noka. “How can the pipeline be so casually and easily rerouted from [the City of] Bismark without consideration of the indigenous rights of two tribes?”
“It’s a desecration and degradation and a continuation of the ways in which indigenous people have been treated. Citizens Bank is making a conscious decision to support this. They have other opportunities. It doesn’t have to come at the expense of indigenous people.”
Michael Sabatoni, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council (21m32s) spoke in opposition to the ordinance, pointing out that, “there are quite a few instances where labor and the chamber are on the same page, and this is definitely one.”
“I am here to express my strong opposition to what are we doing here today with an ordinance such as this? For a company that has been here over 190 years, for a specific issue to last a company, to penalize them, for having an investment in a project, an energy project which is across this country has been a hot button issue.
“I’ll also suggest that if you look at your own investments of the City of Providence pension fund, the State of Rhode Island retirement fund, my own private retirement funds that we have- There’s a portion in every single portfolio- in your own money market accounts things that you think – passive investments – have investment in energy stocks.
“So what ’s next? Are we going to come here next week and say that we’re going divest the Providence pension fund out of energy stocks?
“Energy is not an easy subject. Going forward we’ve got issues across this state. We’ve got issues in Burrillville with the power plant, we’ve got issues with the water system, we were here a few weeks ago, Providence Water. This is just another attempt to strategically utilize leverage to penalize the good corporate citizen that’s made its home here in the State of Rhode Island, for one specific issue and one specific project.
“This is a strategic pinpoint attack to try and send a deterrent to things in the future.”
Providence resident Kate Shapiro spoke next.
“I wonder what it is that people who have spoken on behalf of Citizens think that we want or are trying to do? Our goal is to avoid contributing to the kind of damage that [Randy] Noka spoke about. Our goal is to help the City of Providence move into the energy future. people talk about choices that corporations make. Citizens could invest in solar. Citizens could invest in offshore wind. They have made the choice to invest in these fossil fuels projects that rip up communities, that pollute the water and ultimately will pollute the air, and many banks, as a matter of fact, are pulling out of these projects because they are concerned about their contributions to environmental destruction and other violations of rights that these projects incur.
“We would like to see Rhode Island money stay in Rhode Island and be invested with banks and credit unions that are based here. We would like to see the City of Providence support renewables, we would like to see the City of Providence support indigenous rights, and we would like to see the City of Providence support clean water and clean air for everyone. Fossil fuel projects contribute to the kinds of pollution that eventually affects us all.
Scott Duhamel of the Building Trades spoke against the ordinance. (30m24s)
Though he recognizes the “higher moral ground” of the activists in support of divestment, “Citizens Bank is not the Evil Empire,” says Scott Duhamel of the Building Trades. Citizens has been a friend to the unions and most of their construction work is done through the unions. They are the type of corporation you would aspire to be. “This resolution sends a bad message. You attack one of the few banks in Rhode Island that has these kinds of [positive] policies?”
Justice Gaines spoke on behalf of RI Jobs with Justice (33m04s), noting that “labor is not united on this issue. The CWA as well as the SEIU National has released statements in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and their opposition to this pipeline. So labor is not all together on this issue. Two years ago the [Providence City] Council supported a resolution divesting from fossil fuels.”
As for the slippery slope, “We have to pay attention to the slippery slope we’re already on. Indigenous people’s rights are already being squashed. Their burial grounds and much of their land have already been squandered.”
Gaines noted the people in the room holding the signs saying, “We Support Citizens Bank” and asked, “If someone said, in order to get a job, you had to uproot your grandmother’s grave, would you still take that job? If someone said, ‘In order for you to work, they have to desecrate your church,’ would you still take that job?”
“Nobody’s saying that,” said someone in the room.
“Except that’s what’s happening,” replied Gaines, “That’s the problem with this pipeline. And it’s not just this pipeline. Citizens is not only involved with the Dakota Access Pipeline, they are also involved with the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, and the Trans Pecos Pipeline in Texas, and the Mariner East Pipeline in Pennsylvania. There are multiple pipeline projects that they’re involved in, and this isn’t just about energy, this is about how these pipelines are being used to desecrate indigenous lands, as well as create environmental hazards that they’re all aware of and they don’t really care too much about.
“We have to think about the people involved with this project, the people involved with the Dakota Access, because the reason we need jobs is because we need people to live. If these pipeline projects are desecrating people’s lives, destroying people’s access to clean water, destroying people’s access to their own spirituality, destroying people’s access to have a life, then the jobs don’t mean much, right? And there ways that we can create jobs that don’t also desecrate other people.
“And I really beg you to put people first in this. Put people first and put people over profit. Put people over these corporations, please, I beg of you. take into consideration this bill and really think about who is being left behind and who is not being considered if this pipeline project goes through and the reason this relates back to Providence is because this just can’t be ‘Oh, this doesn’t affect our local, so we’re going to let other people be desecrated.’
“We’ve already signed resolutions about fossil fuels in the past, this council has done that, and we really need to be paying attention. Can we in Providence effect change and affect how indigenous people’s rights are recognized, how environmentally we can protect our citizens. This is going to come back to Providence regardless, global warming and indigenous rights are not only things that happen in South Dakota. They also happen here and we do need to pay attention to that.”
William Farrell, legal counsel and lobbyist for the RI Bankers Association, representing over 21 banks in RI with 10,000+ employees, spoke against the ordinance. (37m00s) Farrell seemed to say that banks cannot base their business decisions on morality, but only on what it is possible to get away with legally. By this logic Citizens bank should have no qualms about helping to fund internment camps should that become somehow legal in the near term. After all, human rights concerns are not a factor when loaning money, right?
“You get into a slippery slope when each municipality gets to regulate exactly who a bank can and cannot bank with,” said Farrell, “And for every ordinance that the City of Providence might want to introduce, Johnston might have a different view of who a bank can or cannot bank with. Westerly might have a different view. So I think, when you start to get into it, it’s a very fine line, a very slippery slope, that really gets handled on a federal level.
“You know a bank’s job in any economy is to provide capital to reinforce development. It’s not to pick and choose what legal endeavors they should or should or should not fund.”
Farrell said that in his written remarks he included some case law about New York going down a similar road that was later overturned in the courts.
“Imagine if banks could choose who they can and cannot do business with, legally abiding businesses,” replied Farrell to a question from Councilor John Igliozzi. ” Again, for every ordinance that a city, say, like Providence might want to impose, there’s a city in the midwest or the south that might have drastically different ideologies. Someone might not want us to do business with the more progressive or environmentally friendly organizations. So for a municipality to try and establish a precedent on who a bank can or cannot bank with, even though it’s a legal entity, is a very dangerous path to go down.”
“I think there are very good ways to deal with [the objections raised here today by opponents of the ordinance],” said Councilor Seth Yurdin, who introduced the ordinance and arrived late to the meeting, “Which is to talk about broader, socially responsible policy for investments for the city and the state and I think there are very good ways to do that.”
The city council started down the path of divestment when it passed multiple resolutions calling for divesting the city’s money from fossil fuels said Yurdin and This latest resolution is a natural continuation of that process.
“I think the way to go is a broader, socially responsible investment policy, but this resolution is a way to start that discussion.”
City Council president Luis Aponte, who earlier in the meeting called the ordinance “the beginning to a dialog” suggested forming a commission to look at the city’s investment policies with an eye towards broader, socially responsible investment. This suggestion was eagerly taken up by the rest of the committee, with Chair Hassett calling Aponte’s suggestion, “a very fair approach.”
“We need to balance our social conscience with what we are charged to do,” said Aponte, “We are investing pension dollars. We have an obligation and duty to pensioners to insure that the promises we made to them are kept. ”
Igliozzi, who for the past decade has been on the Investment Commission, said, “We have to be extremely cautious in how we approach this investment conversation.” The pension has over a billion dollars of unfunded liability noted Igliozzi, “and that’s not going to change.” The Providence pension system is inexorably moving towards a pay-as-you-go pension system and “If we start moving around these [investment] pieces around we could see the abyss much sooner.”
Igliozzi said he “doesn’t look forward to raising taxes” over this issue.
Yurdin countered that the case against his ordinance is being overstated, noting that some investment strategies based on divesting from fossil fuels have done better. He called Iggliozzi’s argument a straw man.
Councilor Sabina Matos then moved to hold the ordinance indefinitely until hearing from both sides but Yurdin asked that his fellow city council members, “be honest about what we’re doing. To vote to continue this indefinitely is to kill it.”
With that, the Ordinance Committee meeting came to an end. At some point a committee will be formed to decide on a course of action as to how to balance environmental and human rights concerns against the fiduciary concerns of the city, but in the meantime Providence will stay in business with banks that profit from killing the planet.
“Residents! Remember this when they come up for re-election!” called out someone after the committee meeting ended.