City Council leans toward adding at-large seats

By Daniel Barbarisi
Published October 19th 2007
PROVIDENCE — The City Council seems set on changing its structure to add
at-large members to its current 15-member roster — though the shape it
takes is still up for debate.

Three council members have now submitted plans for changing the ward-only
system to add citywide representation, and the trio of proposals will go
before the council’s Ordinance Committee in the near future for discussion.

Whatever method the council eventually settles on will then be brought
before the voters in the 2008 election.

The original plan that touched off the debate was submitted by Councilman
John J. Igliozzi, who represents Silver Lake. It would add two at-large
members to the 15 council members.

Councilman Seth Yurdin, representing Fox Point, has put forth a plan that
would dramatically increase the size of the council, to 21 members. It
would keep the existing 15 wards, and add 6 at-large seats. The citywide
seats would be elected by a method of proportional representation known as
the single transferable vote to ensure that council members come from
across the city, and not solely from economically powerful areas.

College Hill Councilman Cliff Wood has submitted the most drastic plan,
calling for the size of the council to remain the same at 15, but to redraw
the ward map, and replace 5 of the existing wards with at-large members
elected by the entire city.

Igliozzi said that the mood of the council is for some increase in size, as
long as there is no change to the ward system.

It’s clear that few council members would support a system that would force
some of them to lose their ward seats and fight to stay on a redistricted
council. But Igliozzi said that is not the only concern: fewer ward seats
coupled with many at-large seats could mean that moneyed candidates from
the East Side could claim greater power at the expense of the poorer

“My model increases representation. The other model has the potential to
consolidate power in the hands of one group,” Igliozzi said.

“It’s very important that not one area or one income bracket obtains
greater power in city government, overshadowing the needs of all
constituents,” Igliozzi said.

Wood said that Igliozzi’s claims are baseless. While the East Side does
have high voter turnout and well-financed candidates, so do other sections
of the city, like parts of the South Side.

He said that his plan comes out of the thinking that the council is big
enough already, and that Providence already has more council members than
many larger cities. In the early 1980s, the city reduced the size of the
council, changing it from a 26-member body where each of the 13 wards had
two representatives, to 15 members, each with their own ward. Wood said
that was a positive change.

“In some ways, you could argue that we need fewer. This 10 and 5 is a
compromise. It’s a start.”

Wood said he recognizes that reducing the number of wards may be difficult
for his colleagues to support. But he said he sees it as the best option.

“My priority is what’s the best plan. I can only offer up what I think is
the best plan and work with colleagues to see what we can come up with,” he

Adding more council members also means more money, Wood said. Each council
member makes $18,000.

Yurdin seeks to find a middle ground.

His plan would add six at-large members while preserving the current setup,
but elects the at-large councilors using single transferable votes.

This method, used by Cambridge, Mass., and the Republic of Ireland, is a
method of proportional representation.

“The size issue is less important to me than the use of proportional
representation,” Yurdin said.

Under this system, voters would rank each candidate according to their
order of preference, putting a “1” next to their favorite candidate, a “2”
next to their second choice, and so on.

Once a candidate reaches the preestablished threshold for election, that
person is considered elected. Once this person is removed from the
counting, their surplus votes are transferred to the other candidates
according to how each voter marked their ballot.

At the same time, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated,
and their surplus votes spread out among the remaining eligible candidates.

This process would repeat itself until the required number of seats are

Using this method would ensure that strong, well-financed candidates from
traditionally high-turnout, moneyed areas are elected, but candidates from
other parts of the city would make the cut as well, he said.

“You don’t want to make it a club for the wealthy,” Yurdin said.

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