Helen Anthony works as a land use attorney at Handy Law, LLC in Providence and was previously a partner at Jursek Dennis and Gagnon, LLP, in Needham, MA. She is an active member of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church and serves on the Board of Governors at the Miriam Hospital. Prior to her election to the City Council, she served on the Providence Zoning Board of Appeals and volunteered at the Crossroads Rhode Island domestic violence shelter and the legal clinic at Mathewson Street Church.
Anthony is a Connecticut native who lived in Missouri for 10 years prior to moving to Rhode Island. She served on the City Council in Columbia, Missouri as well as on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. She was also elected to the city council in Needham, Massachusetts. She was elected to the Providence City Council in 2018.
Mary Kay Harris was born in Shelby, North Carolina but raised in South Providence and is a graduate of Central High School. She has lived in the South Providence and West End neighborhoods for over 30 years. For 15 years, she also worked for Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) as their lead community organizer. She has been actively involved with several other community groups including The Providence Youth Student Movement, the Rhode Island People’s Assembly, the Rosa Parks Human Rights Committee, and the Women of All Colors Assembly.
Harris has been the recipient of awards that acknowledge her dedication to the community, including the 2001 Ministers’ Alliance of RI Martin Luther King Jr. Direct Action Award, and the 2012 Jobs with Justice Solidarity Award. She was elected to the City Council in 2014. She’s also the proud mother of four grown children, 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren
Rachel Miller works as the communications manager at Building Futures, a community nonprofit. A New York native, she moved to Providence in 2003 to become the executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, a community labor coalition dedicated to economic, racial, and social justice. She got involved in community organizing while attending Holy Cross, where she helped to win college recognition for a campus LGBTQIA organization.
Miller has been involved in multiple campaigns for worker, immigrant, and racial justice, has worked on staff with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), and as a consultant with Providence Youth Student Movement. She was elected to the City Council in 2018.
The Council President’s office has a subdued sterile feel with empty walls, a utilitarian desk, and conference table. Rachel Miller, the City Councilor from Ward 13, which encompasses Federal Hill and the West End, is only the second woman to preside over the Providence City Council, and her priorities are tackling the issues, not the decor.
Pleasantries are exchanged and quiet conversation is shattered as Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris makes her entrance. The room is immediately amped up as her colorful outfit, charming personality, and wicked laugh creates a new atmosphere. Harris represents Ward 11, which consists of Upper South Providence and the West End
Helen Anthony, who represents Ward 2 – Blackstone, College Hill, and Wayland Square – the new Chair of the Finance Committee completes the trio.
“For the first time ever, the majority of the Providence City Council are people of color, and women also make up a majority,” Miller explains. “It is a young, diverse council with seven new members. Every member brings something different to the table through their individual backgrounds and skills. There’s really great energy on the new council and everyone wants to help the city grow and prosper.”
With so many of the previous councilors not returning, there is a clear lack of institutional knowledge, but the council was fortunately able to retain the universally respected James Lombardi III as City Treasurer and Senior Advisor; Lombardi has over 25 years of experience with the city. In addition, hints were dropped about a soon-to-be-announced “outstanding” new policy director for the council.
In a wide-ranging conversation about many of the issues facing Providence and the new leadership, all three women emphasized transparency, inclusive decision making, and a belief that their best efforts will be accomplished collaboratively. Harris said it perhaps most passionately. “I’ve been on the council for eight years and I must say I’m charged up about our three-person leadership team. It reminds me of the reasons I wanted to run for the council in the first place,” she laughed.
Each of the women pride themselves on being independent thinkers so they admit they may disagree with each other on some of the issues. Their views on the Superman building is one example. “We each took different positions, but we listened and worked them through to a solution that everyone was comfortable with,” adds Miller.
Miller was elected Council President with 12 out of 15 votes, but she readily acknowledged that the magic number is always eight. “I’m sure that there will be issues that come down to one vote,” she begins. “But as someone who has spent most of her life as a union organizer, I believe in the benefits of trying to bring people together to find solutions that work for both sides.”
Much of the council’s work depends on the new Mayor, Brett Smiley, but it appears that on many issues, they’re already on the same page. “The three of us realize that as a city we have big decisions coming our way, like stewarding the next 10-year comprehensive plan for land-use and zoning; in addition to the return of our public schools to local control, the need for more housing throughout the city, and to pass a balanced city budget while ensuring that budget reflects our values and priorities,” said Miller.
At this point the conversation turned to Anthony. “Much of this will fall on my finance committee” who explains that most of the city’s revenue comes from property taxes which account for 66 percent of what comes in: 18 percent from the State, 1.5 percent Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT), and the balance 14.5 percent from assorted fees. “We have a lot of major challenges ahead. The COVID money and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money is gone so we must maintain a balanced budget.” Anthony adds. Other issues identified by the leadership are affordability, public safety, education, and school buildings, and ensuring equitable access for all residents to city services.
“Obviously, the schools are a top priority. They should be back under the City’s control. We’ll be actively working with the mayor to make this happen, and I think that it will happen in 2024,” points out Miller. “This is an issue that affects kids and families across the city. It’s been hard on everyone and now with school closings, it’s even worse,” adds Harris, “but I know that every council member is on board with getting our schools back.”
Public safety is also a major priority for the council. Everyone had the highest praise for retiring Chief Hugh T. Clements, Jr. noting that he will be especially missed for his responsiveness and commitment to community policing. They all want to see an expansion of the behavioral response programs that Clements started with mental health and social workers. “It’s not about replacing the police; it’s about increasing intervention and alternative solutions before they become police issues,” says Miller. The new police chief will have to build trust with the various constituencies and expand on Clements’ legacy.
The other major issue will be PILOT, which is up for renegotiation this year. Brown University currently pays the City about $4.3 million annually while Yale pays New Haven $22.5 million annually. “Providence needs Brown and the other colleges, and they need Providence. The greater their support, the better the city can look,” adds Miller.
Now the real work for the leadership begins in earnest. The Mayor’s first budget will have challenges.
Our conversation is only three weeks into the new administration and council, but so far everyone seems to be talking from the same playbook. While still very early, the collegiality among the three women is palpable. Part of this seems to be that each of the three has their own areas of particular interest. Miller stresses the importance of economic equity; Harris champions the need for more housing throughout her ward and then adds “but that doesn’t mean all of it has to be low income!” And Anthony, an attorney with experience in zoning and real estate, is clearly the most comfortable and excited about her new role as head of the finance committee: it’s all about the numbers.
Miller summed up the thinking of the new leadership team: “One answer none of us want to hear? ‘Well this is the way we’ve always done it.’”
Providence City Council Primer
The Providence City Council is the 15-member legislative body of the city of Providence. The two major responsibilities are enacting ordinances and adopting the city's annual budget. Providence uses a strong-mayor form of government in which the City Council acts as a check against the power of the executive branch, the mayor. The members of the Providence City Council are elected by residents of the 15 wards of Providence. City Council members are elected to four-year terms and are limited, by City Charter, to serving a maximum of three consecutive full terms (excluding any partial term of less than two years previously served). Council members represent the concerns, needs, and issues of their constituents, and work to improve the city's neighborhoods.
The current City Council consists of:
Ward 1: John Goncalves
Ward 2: Helen Anthony
Ward 3: Susan Anderbois
Ward 4: Justin Roias
Ward 5: Jo-Ann Ryan
Ward 6: Miguel Sanchez
Ward 7: Ana Vargas
Ward 8: James Taylor
Ward 9: Juan Pichardo
Ward 10: Pedro Espinal
Ward 11: Mary Kay Harris
Ward 12: Althea Graves
Ward 13: Rachel Miller
Ward 14: Shelley Peterson
Ward 15: Oscar Vargas
All 15 members of the council are members of the Democratic Party.
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