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RIPTA board divided on outside lobbyist


RIPTA board divided on outside lobbyist

Jan 31, 2024 | 5:58 pm ET
By Christopher Shea
RIPTA board divided on outside lobbyist
A fleet of Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses are parked across the street from the agency's Providence headquarters. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Nobody’s saying the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) shouldn’t have a lobbyist at the State House. After all, the agency projects a budget deficit of $18.1 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

But should its State House liaison be an outside consultant, or a RIPTA employee, either full or part-time?

The bus agency’s staff presented these three options to the Board of Directors Tuesday at the request of former chairman Normand Benoit, who since last fall has been calling for the hiring of a lobbyist to give the agency a permanent presence on Smith Hill.

RIPTA plans to use a team of its own staff to head to the State House this legislative session, according to a memo sent to board members Monday. The group would be led by RIPTA human resources office attorney Richard Kirby, who is the former city manager for East Providence.

“I respect our internal structure, but I’m not sure it’s enough,” Benoit said Tuesday. “Sometimes a rumor will pop up that might involve RIPTA — and they can hear the rumor early on and squash it.”

Didn’t RIPTA already have lobbyists?

In November 2022, the agency entered a controversial contract with Johnston-based Pannone, Lopes, Devereaux & O’Gara LLC (PDLO) —  the law firm where former Cranston Mayor and former GOP congressional and gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung is a partner. 

The $84,000 contract was issued without a board meeting, which led to members voting to restructure the agreement. Board member Patrick Crowley also raised concerns in February 2023 that Fung could not adequately represent RIPTA because he was part of a lawsuit against the state.

RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian told the board at its March 15, 2023, meeting that only attorney Matty Lopes or Brian Jordan would work on the bus agency’s behalf. 

“Allan Fung did not lobby for RIPTA,” agency spokesperson Cristy Raposo Perry stressed in an email to Rhode Island Current Wednesday.

The contract with PDLO ended last December.

Desperate times

Lobbyists are a State House staple, often chatting with lawmakers on the floor or testifying at lengthy committee meetings. Other state departments and agencies with lobbyists include the  Rhode Island Airport Corporation, Department of Environmental Management, Judiciary, Office of Attorney General, Rhode Island Bridge & Turnpike Authority, Secretary of State, and Office of General Treasurer.

But they are usually advocating on behalf of independent organizations.

A state agency petitioning its own government is something of a rarity across the country, said University of Vermont political science professor Alex Garlick.

State agencies do have lobbyists, but Garlick said that’s usually to petition the federal government — usually for financial reasons. The only reason for an agency like RIPTA to lobby the General Assembly should be because of troubles with legislative leadership or the state’s executive branch, he said

And RIPTA indeed has a strained relationship with state leaders. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio last year proposed taking away RIPTA’s independence and falling under the control of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. 

Ruggerio’s proposal was eventually scaled back to just restructure RIPTA’s board with the DOT director as the chairperson.

Gov. Dan McKee in his proposed fiscal year 2025 budget only recommends giving RIPTA $10 million in unspent COVID relief funds to address its looming shortfall. Transit advocates say the agency needs another $110 million to cover service costs.

A skilled lobbyist has better access to key decision makers and can free up any roadblocks their agency faces, Garlick said.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Garlick said.

RIPTA board divided on outside lobbyist
Rhode Island Public Transit Authority Board of Directors Chairman Peter Alviti, right, speaks against the hiring of an outside lobbyist at a meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. To his left is Normand Benoit, who wanted to contract a third-party legislative liaison. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

No outside hire for RIPTA

RIPTA Board Chairman Peter Alviti Jr. on Tuesday agreed on the need to boost the agency’s State House presence but strongly opposed the use of a full-time outside lobbyist. His preference: enhance the agency’s in-house efforts, which does not require board approval.

“I think it can be improved if we begin to look at more direct contact than having a symbol of us be there,” Alviti said. “I’d rather have it be the agency there that they’re interacting with on a one-to-one basis.”

He was also turned off to the idea that a third-party lobbyist would likely have other clients, meaning RIPTA “would only get part of their time.” 

Alviti won out.he board voted 4-4  on a motion by Benoit to issue a request for proposals for an outside lobbyist. Voting in favor were Benoit, Heather Schey, Robert Kells, and James Leach. Opposed were Alviti, Crowley, and new members James Lombardi and Vincent Masino.

The tie vote means Benoit’s motion failed. Board member Marcy Reyes was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.

Agency spokesperson Raposo Perry said RIPTA staff are now looking into creating an in-house full-time lobbyist position. It would be budgeted, she said. 

No timeline was set on when the position would be created.