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Licensing Board Commissioner files suit against Providence officials to recover her legal expenses.

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PROVIDENCE, September 2, 2015 – Johanna Harris has filed suit in Superior Court against Providence City officials to recover the expenses that she incurred while defending herself against legal attacks intended to interfere with her official duties as Commissioner and former Chair of the Providence Board of Licenses. Starting in August 2014, Peter Petrarca, an attorney who represented numerous clients before the Licensing Board, filed an ethics complaint against Ms. Harris and then sought a court order to force her recusal from cases involving his clients on the grounds that his ethics complaint made it impossible for her to be impartial. Ultimately, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission dismissed Mr. Petrarca’s ethics complaint, while his suit to have Ms. Harris recused was also dismissed.

Citing a Rhode Island law amended by the General Assembly in 2009 that requires cities and towns to indemnify public officials, Harris has demanded that City Solicitor Jeffrey Dana, Mayor Jorge Elorza, and Chairman of the City Council’s Claims Committee Sam Zurier comply with their obligation under the law and pay her accumulated legal expenses of nearly $18,000. According to a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court decision, Harris contends, the City has no choice but to indemnify her.

Cities like Pawtucket and Central Falls have passed specific ordinances to implement the state law. But Providence has not passed any ordinance or publicly issued any rules that would put City employees on notice as to the procedures for seeking legal representation or indemnification in the event that they become the target of a lawsuit. “Outside of public notice or scrutiny,” Harris asserts, “the Respondents have effectively set up a hidden system … that has permitted them to pick and choose which City officials they will indemnify based on the content of their speech.”

City Solicitor Dana offered to reimburse only $3,000 of Harris’ expenses, claiming that he lacked the authority to exceed that amount. However, nothing bars the City Solicitor from recommending to Mayor Elorza or to Claims Committee Chairman Samuel Zurier that the City pay a settlement in excess of $3,000. Mr. Dana’s “hiding behind this artificial non-limit of $3,000” is only one vehicle that has permitted the City to pick and choose whom to indemnify.

Harris further cited the City’s practice of indemnifying an official charged with an ethics violation “only if that individual is subsequently exonerated.” “Such a policy of conditional indemnification,” Harris notes, “puts officials like Petitioner in the precarious if not untenable position of accumulating legal expenses without knowing whether the City of Providence will pay for them.”

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Ethics Commission Exonerates Johanna Harris: No Violation. No Penalty.

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PROVIDENCE, July 21, 2015 – Today, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission dismissed Peter Petrarca’s complaint against me, ruling that I did not violate the Code of Ethics and imposing no penalty.

In March 2014, when I had been on the Providence Licensing Board for only six weeks, the City’s Human Resources Department asked me to address an urgent personnel matter. In response, I provided executive coaching to a senior manager during the month of April 2014. My one-time professional services were performed on an emergency basis for less than $5,000 in compliance with City’s rules for a no-bid contract. Apart from my position on the Licensing Board, I have no continuing contractual relationship with the Human Resources Department or any other City department.

To find a violation of the Code of Ethics, the Commission must show that the conduct under scrutiny was “knowing and willful.” Ruling that my acceptance of the no-bid contract was not a knowing and willful violation of the Code, the Commission noted that I had voluntarily reported my contract twice to the Commission.

Last September, Mr. Petrarca brought suit in Superior Court to bar me from deciding his clients’ cases on the grounds that I would be biased by the mere fact of his ethics complaint. In October, Justice Brian Van Couyghen denied Mr. Petrarca’s motion for a preliminary injunction, and in March of this year, Mr. Petrarca’s lawsuit was dismissed in its entirety.

In the year that I’ve spent defending myself against the ethics complaint, I’ve learned a lot about the Ethics Commission. In the coming year, I plan to write about what I’ve learned.

Soft Closing: What is the Reality?

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Under a pilot program set up in 2011, the City of Providence has allowed seven nightclubs located within a restricted geographic area to remain open until 3 a.m. on weekends. In 2012, the Board of Licenses closed down one of these clubs because of a massive street brawl that one police patrolman described as “pretty much a slaughterhouse.” Earlier this year, the Board revoked the license of a second club because of a double shooting. More recently, the Board penalized a third nightclub when a fight within the club turned into a street brawl.

City authorities have now asked the Board of Licenses to expand the scope of the “soft closing” rule. They want the Board to extend the mandatory weekend closing from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. for large nightclubs throughout the entire city. They have provided no analysis of the experience of the three-year-old pilot program. They have not identified the specific nightclubs that would be eligible. Many of these clubs may have a documented record of violence, underage drinking and noise violations. Many are likely to be in residential areas.

At its regular open meeting on June 12, the Board considered a request from the City Solicitor’s Office to schedule a public hearing on the proposed expansion of the soft closing rule. The Board voted unanimously not to schedule a public hearing until it had completed a thorough, two-month study of the proposal. Soft closing is far too important an issue. We cannot go blindly forward without understanding its consequences.

At the Board’s June 12 meeting, leaders of community groups, experts from colleges and universities, and some City Councilmen eloquently raised a large number of unanswered questions. Will the as-yet unidentified nightclubs have enough security personnel to ease patrons out at 3 a.m.? What forms of transportation will be available at that hour? Where can a club patron get food at 3 a.m.? What will be the economic impact on smaller clubs that do not qualify under the proposal? How can our police department, with its limited resources, realistically manage the extended 3 a.m. closings? The Public Safety Commissioner did not attend the Board’s hearing, and other police officials in attendance were not authorized to comment publicly. However, at other Board hearings, district commanders have testified that they presently don’t have the manpower to cover incidents of club-related violence within their own districts, let alone the entire city.

The City Solicitor’s Office has drafted a proposed list of requirements for those nightclubs eligible to close at 3 a.m. Extended hours will be limited to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, as well as nights before holidays. During the final hour from 2 to 3 a.m., the music must be softer, the lights must be brighter, and no alcoholic beverages can be purchased. To prevent larger eligible clubs from stealing customers from smaller ineligible clubs, the Solicitor’s Office proposes that the doors of the larger clubs must be locked at 1 a.m.

Is compliance with these new regulations even remotely realistic? Week after week, the Board of Licenses hears alleged violations of city ordinances and state laws that prohibit noise pollution, bottle service, fighting and other public nuisances, as well as the operation of a nightclub without a license. The City Solicitor’s Office currently has over forty cases of violations documented by the police that have yet to be brought before the Board. The Board’s license administrator, already understaffed, will have a whole new layer of regulations to monitor.

With its current 2 a.m. weekend closing, Providence is already an outlier that attracts nightclub goers from throughout the region. Unfortunately, some of these visiting club goers have violent propensities. The fact that they are unknown to our local police makes it harder to take preventive measures to stop fights before they start. With a 3 a.m. closing, eligible clubs will have an even stronger incentive to engage in “party more, party later” advertising, even though such advertising is illegal. That could further exacerbate our city’s violence problem.

To institute such a major change without adequate factual input from neighborhood groups, colleges and universities, developers and potential investors is simply irresponsible. If some of our city authorities believe that the extension of the soft closing will protect the public safety, let them make their case with facts.

Johanna Harris, an attorney, is Chair of the Providence Board of Licenses. On June 25, 2014, the Providence Journal published this post as an editorial commentary under the title “Johanna Harris: Providence must scrutinize ‘soft closings’.”

Copyright © 2014 Johanna Harris