Monday, October 28, 2013

Making the Right Call

As I write, the last chapters of the 2013 World Series story remain unwritten, but between errors, missed opportunities and odd rules, there have been many moments to give Red Sox fans heartburn. Since so many Sox fans are true fanatics, there’s the game after the game where fans on the radio and on social media ripping apart every key moment and each key decision. While “hindsight is 20/20,” sometimes it’s immediately obvious when a manager – or an elected official -- makes a bad decision. And while John Farrell’s decision making might be the difference in a won or lost game, bad public policy choices can do much more damage.

Rhode Islanders are keenly aware that Mayor Taveras took the reins in Providence at a difficult time in the city’s history and that fiscal challenges are ongoing. However, the closing of the Davey Lopes pool in favor of a “spray park” has now blossomed into a PR disaster that threatens to overshadow Taveras’ launch into the 2014 governor’s race. If the issue were simply that he decided to close a neighborhood pool because of budget constraints then his stubborn “guess what, I’m the mayor” answer probably would be less offensive. However with City Councilman Davian Sanchez alleging that Taveras was willing to open the pool in exchange for Sanchez’ budget vote, the “quid pro pool” controversy looks to be yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of the Rhode Island political cesspool.

Providence’s budget woes are indisputable. And yes, Mayor Angel Taveras appears to have the legal authority not only to refuse to open the pool during the unbearably hot summer, but also to spend more than $36,000 to cement it over, ensuring that another Providence child will never learn to swim there. And here is where I think the Mayor is horribly off-base with his pool policy: according to the CDC, African-American children ages 5-14 are three times more likely to drown than their white counterparts. It seems to me that the Mayor of Providence – the leader the capital city of the Ocean State – should be a passionate advocate of inner-city swimming programs, not a purveyor of spray parks. It’s not just about keeping cool, it’s about providing children and families with the opportunity to learn to swim and engage in physical exercise. Not being able to swim not only prevents them from enjoying the water on a hot summer day, it limits opportunity for jobs, college scholarships – even military service. I’ll argue that while the politics and optics around this are bad, the policy is even worse. 

And yes, the politics and optics are very bad. Exchanging a budget vote for a community pool is certainly not the most egregious horse trade in the history of RI politics, but it does cast a shadow over a previously shiny reputation and make those of us outside the urban core wonder if “business as usual” is always going to keep Rhode Island down. The next generation of leaders needs to be better than the last and Mayor Taveras – who is now dipping his toe into the pool of statewide politics -- might find that owning up to his error, accepting the donations that the community has offered and joining the kids for a swim next summer might be the only way to keep his head above water.

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