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Town Planner Canaries in Tiverton’s Political Coal Mine

It was a difficult decision. Despite my skepticism about government planning, I was being asked as a Town Council member to increase the salary range to hire a town planner for Tiverton.

I worry that planners spend their time restricting the freedom of residents to make them conform with somebody else’s vision. On the other hand, Tiverton has had severe problems in its land use department and has made some bad policy decisions as a result. Meanwhile, the town administrator repeatedly told us that a good planner would do more to help him do his job than an assistant administrator, and two of the three candidates for the job wanted higher pay.

So, do we raise the budgeted $78,000 and give the administrator permission to offer $90,000? A difficult decision. To my right, Town Councilors Denise deMedeiros and Patricia Hilton were getting restless as we talked about it. At one point, deMedeiros said impatiently to Hilton: “They’re going to lose this guy.”

Well, we approved the increase… and we lost the top candidate. In fact, none of the candidates wanted the job. Why? The administrator hasn’t said publicly, but at the same time that he was making his offers, political allies of deMedeiros and Hilton were busy pushing an unjustified recall election against me and the council president, with the help of out-of-town labor unions. That sort of action is bound to have ripple effects for decades. What qualified professional would want to jump into the middle of that?

My experience on the Town Council was certainly educational, teaching lessons that apply across Rhode Island. Insiders feel like being in power is something they deserve, and when they are in power, they get their fingers into everything. They revel in the political advantage power gives them, but they aren’t very good at actually running a government.

Basic operational principles are not followed. Accountability goes out the window, which is why Tiverton has a recent history of employees’ stealing from the town and then gracefully retiring when caught. Residents who want to accomplish things — whether it’s advertising for a charity race or hosting a periodic farm stand on a business property — find themselves caught in a seemingly endless whirlwind of delay and confusion. Maybe that’s just a consequence of meddling government, but residents start to feel like they’re being personally targeted for bad treatment. This environment divides the town and produces a stream of lawsuits.

So, what do the insiders do to compensate for all these problems? Rhode Islanders across the state will sympathize with the answer: They raise taxes. They offer more money to (or accept less competence from) employees to make up for the atmosphere. They hire additional employees to cover for inefficiencies. They create special incentives for selected businesses to keep the economy from going into freefall. They hand out perks to unions and narrow interest groups to ensure that their support remains strong enough that they don’t get voted out of office, even though they deserve to be.

In Tiverton, the bill grew so fast last decade that people pushed back and imposed a limit on tax increases. Rather than fix the problems, the insiders made worse decisions, and the recall showed that there is no bottom to what they’ll do. Worse, the town’s inability to hire a planner despite a 15% increase in the offered salary suggests that the town’s problems are only going to get worse.


Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. (401) 835-7156.

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