Catching on to the Danger of Municipal Dictators


In conversations around Rhode Island, one finds a clear consensus that the state’s creation of an all-powerful receivership position for appointment to severely troubled municipalities was a necessary, largely positive step.  Until very recently, it seemed as if the contributors to Anchor Rising were alone in our concern.  Back in May 2010, Andrew Morse became “increasingly uneasy with the scope of the powers being attributed to a ‘municipal receiver'” as he pondered it over a three-part post (here, here, and here).  Part of what eased the way for the astonishing authority of the receiver position was dislike and egregious behavior of Central Falls’ mayor, but as I wrote in July of that year:

The city of Central Falls is surely better off without Mayor Charles Moreau in office, and many of us likely share the opinion (from afar) that he’d best serve the state by taking this opportunity to quietly exit public service (which phrase I type with some difficulty, in this context). But let’s take a moment to phrase in frank terms what has happened: The state has appointed a person, unaccountable to voters except through the multiple steps from him to the Department of Revenue to the governor, who has stripped an elected official of everything except the title of his office and some entry-level pay on the premise that “you can’t have two leaders.” If he so chooses, that appointee, retired Superior Court Judge Mark Pfeiffer,” could do the same to the City Council.

On a personal level, the outcome for Moreau is probably just, but the bare facts of the case ought to give us pause.

The “dictator” term appeared a week later.  But now, the unease (while still not broadly expressed) has expanded well beyond the state’s conservative enclave.  Here’s RI Senator Elizabeth Crowley (D, Central Falls, Pawtucket, Cumberland) in a just-issued press release:

It certainly isn’t hard for us in Central Falls to imagine a world in such a dictatorship. We were robbed of our democratic representation when the city entered receivership. The state-appointed receiver collects his salary, a bill we in Central Falls will ultimately pay, but he is accountable to no one here in the city. Indeed there is no local elected official who wields any power, all of which is vested in a receiver who thinks so little of us that he goes off and makes fun of the pensioners whose livelihoods were devastated.

Her reference is to Receiver Robert Flanders’ appearance as the mystery guest at last Friday’s Providence Newspaper Guild Follies as an executioner-chic dictator riffing on John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

However appropriate one believes Flanders’ stage performance to have been, there is reason to hope that his job performance — frankly, the very existence of his current job in the first place — will spark some reevaluation of political principles.  Here’s Crowley:

We the people of Central Falls will not tolerate being the butt of anyone’s jokes. Our city is a vibrant, tight-knit community, not a laughing stock. We deserve better than to be ignored and made fun of by the person appointed by the state to provide sound fiscal management.

The senator has it right that a civic group, like the residents of Central Falls, ought to have the power not to tolerate mockery (much less oppression) from those who claim authority over their lives.  Unfortunately, the long-standing project of consolidating power an increasingly distant central authorities gives us all, as individuals, less and less ability to do anything about it.


(Video posted by Bob Plain of RIFuture.)