City voters 'meet' 17 would-be leaders at packed candidate forum

City voters 'meet' 17 would-be leaders at packed candidate forum

WOONSOCKET - They filed onto the stage in turns wearing crisp jackets and shiny ties for a chance to make their pitch, and at times their rousing speeches inspired the crowd of onlookers to shouts more suited to a pep rally than a debate for political office.

Fourteen of the 15 candidates vying for a seat on the City Council and three of the four mayoral candidates attended Tuesday night's Meet the Candidates Forum at Chan's Fine Oriental Dining, and if there was any solid takeaway from the well attended event, it was that this election season, the stakes are high, and Woonsocket voters have some difficult choices. Elected officials will likely face unprecedented challenges as they aim to create stability in a city under fiscal control of a state-appointed Budget Commission. And this year, the chosen group will serve a three-year term as the city aligns its system with even-year elections.

"Make no mistake about it: we have a bumpy road ahead of us, and this is why I chose to run again," said Council Vice President Daniel Gendron, an incumbent member aiming for his third term in office.

The event was the first solid chance voters have had to hear from the diverse group in advance of the city primary to be held Oct. 8, which will narrow the field of council candidates from 15 to 14 and the mayoral race down to two. Candidates used the opportunity to introduce themselves and present their platforms.

"We simply cannot elect the same people for 20 years and expect different results," said council challenger Garrett Mancieri, before briefly presenting his three-point plan to attract business, increase property value and improve the city's image.

"I think it's vitally important not just to make Woonsocket a better place to live and to work, but also to visit," said Melissa Murray, another newcomer aiming for a seat on the council. "I'm a huge supporter of the budding arts community here in Woonsocket and I think they are going to play a huge part in making Woonsocket a tourist destination so that we may increase our revenue through tourism."

Asked about their greatest successes and failures on the City Council, nearly every incumbent, including those who had voted against the plan, named the takeover of city finances by a state-appointed budget commission as a regret.

"The vote that I regret the most was the one allowing the Budget Commission to come into the city. I was under the impression that this Budget Commission would be working closely with the City Council, School Committee members and the citizens of Woonsocket and they haven't. They're very close-minded. They don't care what we have to say," said incumbent Marc Dubois, a former School Committee member now seeking his second term on the council.

"It was not something that should have occurred," said Councilor Albert Brien of the city's decision to ask the commission to come in. Brien voted against the move.

"The biggest failure for me is that I indicated to you two years ago that we needed to push back, and we haven't pushed back hard enough," he added.

Incumbents also tried to emphasize that it was the loss of state funding, rather than mismanagement, that created the city's current fiscal crisis.

"The city of Woonsocket is in trouble today, in part, because we have lost $17 million a year in state revenue sharing," said incumbent candidate Roger Jalette.

City Council President John Ward and mayoral hopeful Michael Moniz were unable to attend the event, but Ward sent a statement which was read by moderator Jeff Gamache from WNRI.

"I truly believe that the community's opportunity to hear directly from candidates is extremely important," the statement read.

"I only promise my full energy, a search for new ideas, and a determination to fight on behalf of Woonsocket and her citizens."

Guests spilled out into the lobby at the standing-room-only event, and cheered on their favorites. On several occasions, Gamache from WNRI had to ask the audience to quiet down.

Would-be councilor Jeffrey Belknap made a stir with his criticism of the current council.

"I never would have voted to give my vote away to a group of people that I don't know and that I don't trust," said Belknap, adding that during meetings, many of the current members look like they're not paying attention. "You're just putting on a show because it's election time"

Anita McGuire Forcier, a School Committee member making her first run for council, responded with a passionate defense of their actions and a plea for residents to get more involved.

"We must remember the school had no cash. Without a Budget Commission, we wouldn't have gotten the cash advancement. I could sit here and tell you what you want to hear but I'm not going to lie to you," said McGuire Forcier. "I am going to hold our state reps and senators accountable."

The candidate recalled when she tried to organize a bus full of residents to protest funding cuts at the Statehouse, and few people showed up.

"Will you guys back us up on this next time? Will we have your support? Or will we miss this bus too?" she asked.

Tension and anticipation seemed to fill the room as the forum entered its second half and mayoral candidates took the stage. State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt is considered a formidable opponent for incumbent Mayor Leo Fontaine, and newcomer David Fisher held his own among the seasoned politicians.

"Woonsocket is at a crossroads. We have to chose in which direction we're moving," said Fisher. "We have a distinct choice in this election and that choice is: Do we continue to embrace the failed policies and approaches of the past?"

The event was the third of its kind, organized by Lorraine Corey, founder of the informational website MyWoonsocket.com , in conjunction with WNRI 1380. Organizers tried out a new format for the mayoral hopefuls, allowing the three in attendance to direct questions to one another. The result was often thinly disguised barbs.

Fontaine began by asking Baldelli-Hunt about her vote on 38 Studios, a well-documented debacle that lost the state millions.

"Mayor Fontaine: Walmart, Lowes, Shaws, Staples, Pizza Hut: They're all vacant now. Could you please tell us what you did for these businesses and others that are empty now to keep them in Woonsocket?" asked Baldelli Hunt.

Fontaine responded that in many cases, the greatest obstacle to economic growth in Woonsocket has been the "NIMBY" syndrome: residents who want development, but proclaim "not in my back yard."

In closing speeches, the mayor left a positive message.

"This election isn't about where we are, it's where we're going," he said.