Contract debate, political rivalries shaped year

Contract debate, political rivalries shaped year

Teachers picketed outside Woonsocket High School during month seven of an eight-and-a-half-month work-to-rule protest in March. The Woonsocket Teachers Guild and Woonsocket School Committee signed a contract in May after more than a year of negotiations over teachers’ pay. (Breeze file photo by Lauren Clwm)

WOONSOCKET – It was a contentious year in Woonsocket, where contract debates, budget struggles and political bickering were offset by successes in the city’s business community and the continued development of its transportation infrastructure.

A well-worn rivalry between Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and a five-person contingent of city councilors continued to play out as the two sides clashed over budgets, charter schools and a council-led investigation into City Hall. However, a new political face added some new ideas to the mix. In August, first-time candidate Alexander Kithes claimed a vacant seat on the City Council, winning a special election that some saw as a sign of the growing strength of the state’s progressive wing.

Outside City Hall, residents continued to see growth in the business community as new restaurants and a brewery opened their doors downtown and in other locations in the city. Residents also saw signs of transformation in Market Square, where a newly completed section of the bike path and a new roundabout are just some of the planned changes to the area. Nearby River Island Art Park also gained traction as a meeting and event space, hosting large crowds for its 2nd annual summer concert series.

Though there was plenty of good news, ongoing issues weighed heavily on residents. In May, a debate over teacher contracts finally wrapped up after 14 months of negotiations, with the conclusion raising more questions about the future of the city’s education funding. Residents also raised concerns over several high-profile church closures as they struggled to adapt to a new reality that saw some congregations expanding and others closing their doors.

Here are the highlights from a year where emotions ran high and residents showed their willingness to fight for issues that matter, even when those issues brought more division than conclusion to the city’s future.

Teachers get a new contract

The first half of the year continued to be overshadowed by a months-long contract dispute between the city and the Woonsocket Teachers Guild. In the schools, students reported a tense atmosphere and lack of support for some extracurricular activities as teachers continued their work-to-rule protest. On the political side, the debate turned personal when Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and the WTG traded barbs in the days leading up to the 2018 election the previous fall.

At issue was a proposed pay increase for the city’s teachers and paraprofessionals. Teachers argued the city had woefully underfunded its teachers’ contract, pointing out the city had not increased its local contribution to the School Department since a massive 25 percent increase mandated by the state in 2013. City officials responded they had little left to give, arguing the city was still recovering from the effects of a recession.

In May, the two sides finally reached an agreement, settling on a contract that amounted to a $7.1 million increase in salaries over three years. The agreement was made possible in part by an unexpected boost in state aid as well as a $250,000 increase in the school budget approved by the City Council.

Though business as usual resumed in the fall, school funding, particularly as it relates to the rising costs of transportation and tuitions for special education and charter schools, continued to be a source of concern for city leaders. In the fall, the General Assembly convened a task force to study the funding formula that determines state aid to local school districts, an initiative local administrators are hoping might bring some relief to the schools.

Councilors, mayor face 
off over issues

Despite pledges of collaboration from both sides during last year’s inauguration, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and a group of five city councilors continued to clash on a variety of issues, repeating a pattern that’s solidified over the past few years. After obtaining a veto-proof majority in the 2018 election, the group, which includes Council President Daniel Gendron and Councilors Jon Brien, James Cournoyer, Denise Sierra and John Ward – sometimes, but not always, with the supporting votes of two other councilors – passed several legislative measures awarding greater oversight of various city processes, from changes in tax status and the awarding of federal grant funds to the location of proposed municipal buildings. Many of these were sparked by concerns over particular issues, such as when several city nonprofits were caught off guard by a change in their tax status from “nonprofit” to “for-profit” in July.

Councilors and the mayor also clashed over the city budget, with the council voting unanimously in June to pass their own version of the $145.9 million budget. That budget removed close to $500,000 to a contingency account and cut funding from road paving and blight removal, an initiative that’s been at the center of the mayor’s city beautification efforts.

Investigation into City Hall

In September, those tensions came to a head when The Providence Journal published an article titled “In Woonsocket City Hall, an alleged plot and recorded conversations” detailing allegations of misconduct in City Hall. According to the article, Baldelli-Hunt allegedly told an employee of the City Clerk’s office that he would “help us get rid of” City Clerk Christina Harmon-Duarte, with whom she had previously had disagreements. Baldelli-Hunt has denied those comments ever took place and stated earlier this year that she welcomes an investigation of the clerk’s office.

The following week, the council held the first of several closed-door meetings related to an investigation of the allegations, later voting 7-0 to hire a lawyer for the proceedings. The council has continued to meet behind closed doors on the matter, most recently at a December meeting that included discussion of potential litigation relating to a subpoena for Baldelli-Hunt. Council President Daniel Gendron said this week the meetings so far have been strictly procedural and the council expects to begin conducting interviews in the new year.

A new face in politics

While tensions between the mayor and several city councilors continued as before, a newcomer to the city’s political races brought an added challenge to the rivalry. In April, newly elected Councilor Julia Brown stepped down from her seat on the City Council, prompting a special election less than a year into the new term. As the race to fill the vacant seat played out, the two front-runners demonstrated stark political differences that came to represent very different visions for the city’s future. Roger Jalette Sr., a former council president with a long history in city politics, gained the support of five of the six sitting councilors for his platform of lowering city taxes. Alexander Kithes, a first-time candidate with connections to the state’s progressive Democrats, had the support of Councilor David Soucy and others for a platform that included climate concerns, government transparency and support for public education. While Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt did not formally endorse either candidate, Kithes’ endorsement by Woonsocket teachers and his criticism of the city’s record on transparency kept him at a distance from the mayor even as he traded barbs with her five political rivals.

In August, his victory drew the attention of statewide commentators who viewed it as a test of the state’s progressive wing. A few weeks later, Kithes delivered on his promise that there would be plenty to see at council meetings from now on. After a local radio host apologized for describing himself as a “white nationalist” on the air, Kithes proposed a resolution denouncing white nationalism. The move met strong resistance from five members of the council, who described it as “feel-good legislation” and changed the wording to criticize the original resolution before passing it by a 5-2 vote. That action later gained the attention of Kithes’ supporters around the state, who mocked the reaction by performing a dramatic reading of the meeting.

While the two sides have continued to butt heads, they’ve also found common ground on some issues. On several occasions, Kithes and Soucy supported measures proposed by other councilors to ensure more council oversight of city processes, including tax status changes and the awarding of federal grant funds.

Charter school controversy

Charter schools continued to make headlines in Woonsocket as RISE Prep Mayoral Academy moved to a new location at 30 Cumberland St. The school, which has been the subject of controversy between Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and a contingent of the City Council, plans to expand its student body in the new building, eventually offering kindergarten through grade 8. In December, a lawsuit from the City Council contesting the school’s location in a commercial zone got a boost when the Rhode Island Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal on the case.

At the same time, a new proposal from a group hoping to open a bilingual charter school in the city renewed debates about the advantages of options for city residents versus the fiscal impact on city schools. After vocal protests from school leaders and several members of the City Council, the group withdrew their application to the Rhode Island Department of Education, saying they planned to “revisit all options,” including one location, before submitting another application.

Growing Main Street

It was a year of celebrations in the city’s downtown area, which marked the opening of several large businesses and new plans for others. After more than a year of planning, Christopher’s Kitchen and Bar opened its doors in the former Vintage building in October, bringing new life to a vacant two-story building right on Market Square. Behind it, River Island Art Park saw an increase in use, drawing crowds for the 2ndannual Levitt AMP summer concert series and the city’s Winter Wonderland as well as the usual lineup of festivals and events.

On the other side of Main Street, Lops Brewing marked the downtown’s first brewery when it opened in July in a renovated building that also hosts 17 market-rate apartments. Building developers John Messier and Leszek Przybylko later announced plans to bring their mixed-use model to 43 Main St., the boarded-up building next to Ciro’s Tavern. If all goes well, they said, they could begin construction next year and open up a commercial space on the ground floor of the building in about 12 months.

A counseling center also filled Main Street’s Liberty Building, but other properties, including the Hospital Trust Building, remained stubbornly vacant. The historic bank building spent the first few months of the year behind a fenced-in perimeter due to concerns that its brick façade was literally crumbling onto the sidewalk. City officials eventually removed the perimeter, but the 100-year-old building continues to deteriorate as the chances of it finding an investor appear to dwindle.

Bikes, trains and automobiles

The city saw significant milestones in its transportation infrastructure this year, including the completion of a new segment of the Blackstone River Bikeway and a roundabout at the end of Truman Drive. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation now has two more segments of the bike path to complete before the route will be fully connected through Woonsocket. Over in Massachusetts, state officials broke ground on the remaining bike path sections in Blackstone, which will take advantage of a historic seven-span viaduct before connecting to the Rhode Island portion at the state line.

While the city’s bike future looks bright, its train future appears less certain. In October, the Boston Surface Railroad Company filed for bankruptcy shortly before announcing an interim bus service on its planned passenger rail route between Providence, Woonsocket and Worcester. Company officials say the filing is a legal maneuver intended to forestall the RIDOT’s efforts to evict them from the Woonsocket Train Depot over an alleged failure to make lease payments. That case remains ongoing, with a trial scheduled for February.

More changes on worship 

In a scenario that’s repeated itself in one-time Catholic enclaves around the country, the parishioners of two local churches are fighting to save their communities in the face of declining attendance and rising costs. In the fall, a group of parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Church hired a lawyer to try and keep their church open after the Diocese of Providence announced plans to close it in January. Last week, their efforts met some success when the diocese announced the building will remain an active church for the time being, though regular services are still scheduled to end in January. The development places the church in a similar situation to Holy Family, which continues to hold services on holidays and special events after its parish merged with two others to form Holy Trinity Parish last year. Both groups are hoping their efforts will forestall an eventual permanent closure.

It’s not all bad news for the religious congregations of Woonsocket and surrounding communities. In July, Waters Church, a Christian congregation that previously met at Hamlet Middle School, got approval from the Zoning Board to move to a vacant former commercial space next to Walnut Hill Bowl. And in the fall, Masjid Al-Islam, just over the city line in North Smithfield, announced plans to add 26,000 square feet to accommodate a growing community at its current building at 40 Sayles Hill Road.

The St. James Baptist Church also underwent change this year, installing the Rev. Jeffrey Thomas as pastor on April 13, while the First Baptist Church of Woonsocket moved to a new location at 55 Main St.

A bright future for solar

Solar energy officially made inroads in Woonsocket this year, with the city’s first two commercial solar farms getting the green light from the Zoning Board to start construction shortly before the end of the year.

The two farms, located at the former Alice Mills site and a vacant lot on Singleton Street, will deliver a combined 1,150 kilowatts of renewable energy. Both projects also take advantage of unused industrial space along a riverside corridor that’s traditionally been used for manufacturing.

While the two private projects are ready to break ground, two other initiatives taken up by the City Council are moving along more slowly. Last year, North Kingstown-based Green Development responded to request-for-proposals with a plan to build solar panels on four parcels of city-owned land, including a proposed carport over the WACTC parking lot. While several councilors have supported the proposal, Baldelli-Hunt raised concerns with the bid process and said she would prefer to send the project back out to bid. The mayor also expressed opposition to a plan to request bids to turn River’s Edge Recreation Complex into a solar farm. Earlier this month, city officials told the council that plan might be more complicated than anticipated, as previous Department of Environmental Management grants might restrict what can be done with the property.

Change at the WHA

In January, a seven-month-long drama at the Woonsocket Housing Authority ended with the appointment of Robert Moreau, a former director of security and facilities, as the agency’s new executive director. The previous June, Christine O’Connor, the former executive director, was placed on leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation. Though the details of that investigation were never made public, the decision plunged the agency into a period of uncertainty that included O’Connor’s formal resignation on just before the first of the year.

The agency, which has a checkered history of rotating leadership and personnel issues, experienced another setback in May when a federal audit report turned up $1.9 million in federal funds spent on ineligible costs. According to Moreau, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has not made a decision on whether it plans to demand repayment of the funds, instead demanding policy changes and additional training for staff in the wake of the audit.

A for-sale sign went up on Sacred Heart Church after it closed last year. The parishioners of two other churches, St. Charles Borromeo and Holy Family, spent much of the year trying to save their churches from the same fate. (Breeze file photo by Lauren Clem)