EAST PROVIDENCE — In the minds of many, when East Providence celebrates the 60th anniversary of its incorporation as a city in 2018, it will "truly" become one.
That's because the electorate of the city during the Tuesday, Nov. 8, election overwhelmingly supported a local ballot referendum changing East Providence's governing structure from one of a manager-council form which it has had since its inception in 1958 to one of an elected "strong" mayor-council form.
By nearly a 3-1 margin, the electorate approved Local Question 8 by a vote of 12,192-4,503 or 73%-27%.
The strong mayor initiative received convincing support from the first three polling places to report — St. Martha Church, Fuller Learning Center and East Providence High School.
A third of the way through (6 of 18 precincts) and the vote to change to a mayoral form of government continued to post a commanding 72%-28% approval margin. And later in the evening with only three polling places to report, the city was on the verge of a charter change to a strong mayor with the amendment up by some 5,000 votes.
"I'm very happy the people finally get the chance to elect their leader. It's something I've been saying we've needed for a long time," said Rick Lawson, a member of the Ward 4 Democratic Committee and one of the initiatives biggest proponents leading up to election day in traditional and social media circles.
"It's time. The city had needed this," Mr. Lawson, also known to many as the chairman of the East Providence Arts Council, continued. "I feel the city has needed a charismatic leader not just another bureaucrat with no charisma."
Mr. Lawson said he has long considered the change, but became convinced last year when the Pawtucket Red Sox were purchased and their new owners proposed moving the franchise.
"We need someone who is going to sell the city," Mr. Lawson explained. "Someone who is going to find maybe the next Google or Amazon. I saw what (mayor) Scott Avedesian did in Warwick with the PawSox. As soon as they were thinking about moving, he was right there trying to get them. That's what we need."
The city needs not only an advocate, but also stability in the minds of the charter change supporters.
"Every city in Rhode Island our size has a mayor," Mr. Lawson added. "Now at least we have the chance to elect someone to do it. The system is broken. We've had six city managers in the last six years. It was time to let the people choose."
Incumbent Ward 1 city councilor Bobby Britto, who ran unopposed for reelection this cycle, proposed the charter change late last year and continued to support it, though he admitted to being a bit surprised by the large margin of victory.
"I had an idea it would pass, but I didn't expect almost 75 percent of the people to vote in favor. What that tells me is the people were looking for change. Like the saying goes, 'if it isn't broke, don't fix it,' but the system in East Providence is broken," Mr. Britto said.
As Mr. Lawson noted, the city has run through six managers in the last several years, culminating with the firing of Richard Kirby this past summer and only a few months before the November vote. Mr. Britto was one of two councilors, along with Helder Cunha, who voted against the move.
"Was it the last straw? I don't know, but without a doubt I think it played a role," Mr. Britto said of the impact Mr. Kirby's termination had on the result. "You fired a guy who was dealing with the issues in the city, exposing the council's interference. I'm sure it had a lot to do with it. The people's voice has been heard."
Another of those who will assist with implementing the change is newly-elected Ward 3 city council Joe Botelho. Mr. Botelho backed the initiative in his campaign with Candy Seel.
"I've supported this for 32 years. The will of the people has spoken. The voters wanted accountability. It's clearly the way they wanted to go, and the good people of this city have voted so we have to respect that," Mr. Botelho said. "It's a mandate. Now it's up to the council to make sure it's done correctly. We have to put something in place the people of East Providence can be proud of."