Council rejects mayor’s latest school board pick

Council rejects mayor’s latest school board pick

WOONSOCKET – The City Council on Monday declined to end the controversy surrounding school board appointments, rejecting Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s latest pick of retired police officer Brian Kane by a vote of 4-3.

Council members offered little explanation on why they voted against Kane’s appointment. They’ve been in an ongoing political feud with the mayor after she decided against reappointing former Vice Chairman Donald Burke, whose term expired in December.

Councilor Jon Brien cautioned that whether someone chooses to vote for a candidate or not, it’s not “akin to character assassination,” but instead reflects the personal beliefs of that one council member.

Brien, as well as Council President Dan Gendron, and Councilors Denise Sierra and Jim Cournoyer, voted against the appointment.

Councilors Chris Beauchamp, Richard Fagnant and Melissa Murray voted in favor of Kane’s appointment.

Earlier in Monday’s council meeting, former City Council President John Ward urged elected leaders to put aside their “acrimonious” debate on the appointments. Someone has to back down from this “skunk fight,” he said. Burke is “a fine gentleman,” he noted, but he doesn’t see any reason why leaders should object to Kane, a retired police officer with a diverse skill set.

School boards should have a variety of people from different backgrounds and professions, said Ward. Kane’s expertise in public safety could come in handy at a time when school officials are seeking to make educational spaces safer places.

Unless there was a credible reason to deny the appointment of someone who has lived all their life in service to the public, said Ward, the council had an obligation to appoint Kane and move on.

Murray, too, said she likes the idea of having someone with public safety experience on the committee.

The council’s vote against the mayor’s appointment of Kane sends the mayor back to the drawing board in an ongoing standoff over her appointments, with one seat on the five-member board still vacant. The council previously rejected the appointment of Joyce Conti, but eventually agreed to appoint Steve Lima to a second vacant seat.

Some residents and council members on Monday expressed concern that Lima missed the second of two committee meetings he’s been scheduled to attend.

Sierra took issue with not getting to speak with Kane prior to Monday’s meeting, as she said she had “a lot of questions.” She said she asked the mayor for his contact information last Friday afternoon, and she didn’t receive it by email until Sunday. After not checking her email until Monday morning, she said she tried to contact the candidate that day but was unable to.

Baldelli-Hunt responded that a staff member came to City Hall on Sunday to retrieve Kane’s contact information and send it to Sierra Sunday morning, noting that Sierra could have had the information at that point.

Sierra responded that Baldelli-Hunt should have included the contact information in the first place, to which the mayor responded, “Everyone’s not perfect, like you.” That response drew a rebuke from Gendron.

Sierra also voted against Lima’s appointment at a meeting Feb. 8.

Baldelli-Hunt did not respond to a request for comment on the latest vote against Kane as a member of the appointed school board.

Councilor Beauchamp, a Baldelli-Hunt ally, said he agreed with Ward that the council should move past the issue by appointing Kane, adding that the retiree has a lot to offer as a former police officer. He expressed amazement not only at the ongoing gridlock between the council and mayor but at the “biting sarcasm” heard from the council rostrum at times.

Prior to Monday’s vote, Beauchamp noted that the mayor declined to appoint Burke again because they had a disagreement on the school board’s authority relating to budgetary matters and contracts.

Beauchamp said he he disagreed with Ward on his interpretation of the law that the mayor doesn’t have authority over all contracts within the school department and the school budget, as she and City Solicitor John DeSimone maintain.

If the mayor negotiates and signs all contracts and has control of operations through the school budget, there’s no need for a school board, said Ward.

Brien, a former state representative, agreed with Ward that the legislative intent behind the state law does not give the chief executive power to negotiate and execute all school contracts. In such a situation, where school board members are repeatedly bypassed, they become “feckless figureheads,” he said.

Fagnant said he didn’t have to call Kane prior to Monday’s meeting because he already knew him as an “excellent, excellent” candidate, and he believed he would do a great job on the committee. He reviewed the package and liked the idea of someone with police knowledge, especially with what’s going on in the country, he said.

The council has far more important things to spend its time on than who will ultimately serve in that fifth slot on the committee, said Fagnant. If Kane doesn’t work out to expectations, officials can just make a change in three years.

“Time will tell,” he said.

If the council denied Kane’s appointment, said Fagnant prior to the vote, what kind of message would it be sending?