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Guest MINDSETTER™ Conley: Don’t Tamper With Our Treasure - History is Not for Hacks!

Wednesday, March 09, 2016


Luis Aponte, City Council President

Established in 1978 with my assistance, the Providence’s City Archives houses a treasure trove of manuscripts, photographs, printed documents, vital records, and other materials that chronicle nearly four centuries of the city’s history. Since 1978, Albin Wagner, Joseph Chrostowski, and Susan Chapdelaine, all whom I screened and hired, followed by John Myers and Paul Campbell, constituted an array of dedicated, low-paid, highly-skilled archivists with a passion for the past and its preservation.  

The archives is  a precious resource that requires knowledgeable, experienced staff to preserve these records and make them available for public use.  Unfortunately, insider politics now threatens to wipe out the progress made there during nearly four decades. Political retribution or the seemingly insatiable need to place political patronage over professionalism should have no place in the operations of the city’s municipal archives. History is not for hacks!

In June 2010 Paul Campbell was hired by the City Council to add a new public dimension to the relatively obscure archives program. He was a perfect choice. Possessing master’s degrees both in History and Library Science, Campbell had previously served as Library Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society Library and was the author or co-author of nine books on Rhode Island history, most of which dealt with Providence. Before even starting on the job, Campbell produced a report detailing 19 recommendations to revitalize the archival program and within two years had taken steps to implement all 19 recommendations.  Deftly maneuvering through the political thicket, he was able to replace two employees with professionally trained staff and made the archives as a classroom, utilizing nearly 200 college students to install exhibits, create finding aids, and process collections that had been buried in storerooms for a century-and-a half.

Campbell raised more than $40,000 to restore the city’s valuable collection of mayoral portraits and won the financial support of local genealogists in an effort to preserve early bound volumes and records. Late last year the archives was the recipient of a much deserved Rhody Award for excellence in collection preservation and community service.  Campbell also received an award and Congressional recognition for his volunteer work at the Knight Memorial Library in Providence. For his beyond-the-call of duty effort in creating arguably one of the finest municipal archives programs in the nation, he was summarily dismissed from city service by City Council President Luis Aponte.

In order to create the pretext for purging Campbell from the archives, a former factory worker with close political ties to the council was given a job, spent a total of two hours in the archives, and then promptly filed a trumped-up complaint accusing Campbell of creating a hostile work environment and being rude to another employee.  Campbell was promptly suspended, but a hearing proved the fallacy of the charges and Campbell was cleared to return to work.  Sadly, the conspiracy did not end there. The City Clerk, under the direction of Council President Aponte, dismissed Campbell anyway, presumably for insubordination.  Campbell is now without a job and the archives is leaderless.  However, the accuser, for his role in this scheme, was awarded a $44,000 a year job performing data entry in the city archives.  Even more egregious is the fact that this task was being routinely accomplished by volunteers whom Campbell had recruited.

Several decades ago, I played a role in recognizing the importance of preserving our capital city’s records for the enjoyment of future generations by supporting the creation of the city archives and incorporating this municipal division into our city charter.  Today, as the state’s Historian Laureate, I am compelled to reiterate the importance of the city archives as the keeper of our precious collective memory, and I strongly urge the City Council President to reverse his ill-advised decision and return Campbell to the helm of the archives.  In this case, I am sincerely hopeful that right will prevail over political might.

Dr. Patrick Conley was founding chairman of the now defunct Providence Heritage Commission, an agency that worked to create the city's archival program.


Related Slideshow: The Ten Most Politically Powerful in Providence

A new group of leaders is taking over the City of Providence - take a look at the top 10.

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He has realized tens of millions in benefits in tax breaks from the City over the past two decades and will be back again this year. He still has open issues on a range of properties and is the likely candidate to take control of the Providence Journal’s building on Fountain Street.

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Myrth York - Politico

The former State Senator from the East Side and three-time failed candidate for Governor has become a major power in Democratic circles both in the city and statewide. She went all in for both Gina Raimondo and Jorge Elorza and she won big. 

Recently, she scored an appointment to the Beacon Insurance Board as a part of a Chafee-Raimondo agreement.

York has been the Chair of the Zoning Board during the tenure of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. The changes to zoning on Federal Hill under the York leadership of the Zoning Board have been widely scrutinized.

York is seen as a major mentor and supporter to Brett Smiley, the City of Providence’s newly appointed Chief Operating Officer.

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Buddy Cianci - Former Mayor, Radio Talk Show Host

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The new Council leadership has a number of Cianci supporters among their ranks. 

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House Majority Leader John DeSimone 

With the resignation of Gordon Fox in 2014, the City of Providence’s influence in the legislature took a big hit losing the Speaker’s office. DeSimone rose to majority leader as part of the Speaker Nick Mattiello leadership team.

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Joe Paolino - Former Mayor and Developer

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That investment further extended the Paolino empire in Providence.  He continues to be a national player in Democratic politics and fundraising, but his economic interests are embedded in Providence.

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Sabina Matos, Council President Pro Tempe

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The Rhode Island College grad who represents the 15th Ward - the Olneyville and Silver Lake neighborhoods,-- is emerging as Providence’s most influential woman.

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Tony Simon, Chief of Staff

The Chief of Staff for Mayor Elorza comes to the City from Sheldon Whitehouse’s office. He served as Rhode Island Deputy State Director for the junior senator and his transition to City politics should be smooth.

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His challenge may be will he -- or Smilley -- have the Elorza’s ear.

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Brett Smiley - Chief Operating Officer

The former political fundraiser, then candidate for Mayor, and now the City of Providence’s Chief Operating Officer knows a lot about politics, but has no experience in running a city. 

Smiley and Elorza’s relationship will be critical to the the new Mayor having a productive agenda.

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Luis Aponte - City Council President

Aponte was first elected to the Providence City Council in 1998. He is one of the first Latino candidates ever elected in Rhode Island and the true trailblazer in Providence when he was elected as Providence’s first Latino member of the City Council.

Aponte is seen as thoughtful and progressive. During the course of his tenure he has often been the bridge between the neighborhoods and downtown.

With nine votes on the Council, Aponte can at a minimum share with Elorza setting the City’s agenda. 

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Jorge Elorza - Mayor of Providence

The former RWU Law Professor and Housing Court Judge is facing a tremendous number of difficult and complex problems:

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