New year brings division back to City Hall

New year brings division back to City Hall

WOONSOCKET – During the December inauguration, when members of both sides of the rift dividing a majority of city councilors from the administration expressed hope for a better relationship going forward, the city’s prospects for a more cooperative 2019 appeared to be looking up.

Now, one week into the new year, those sides are back to their usual stances, with members of the council and administration exchanging harsh words during Monday’s meeting.

Early in the meeting, Joel Mathews, the city’s director of planning and development, rose during the citizen’s good and welfare portion of the meeting to express his opposition to a proposed ordinance change. The proposed amendment would alter the city zoning ordinance to require council approval of any municipal, state or federal use, a significant change that would give the council greater control over the zoning process. A municipal use is at the center of the ongoing debate over the proposed expansion of RISE Prep Mayoral Academy and whether it can operate at a new location on Cumberland Street.

“The City Council is trying to make a power grab and take away from the Zoning Board, and maybe at some point the Planning Board, their powers to exercise independent judgment of issues that come before them, and I think it’s very inappropriate,” said Mathews.

While the comments pertained to an item on the council agenda, Councilor Jon Brien pointed out that since he was not a resident, Mathews was not entitled to give his opinion during the citizen’s good and welfare portion of the meeting. Council President Daniel Gendron initially allowed the comments but later asked Mathews to hold the remainder of his speech until the matter was taken up by the council.

However, when the council arrived at the agenda item an hour later, the item was tabled for review by the Planning Board and a future work session before any discussion could occur, a step that has previously been taken in the case of zoning ordinance changes. Mathews chastised the council for their “lack of respect” after he was declined the opportunity to speak, drawing an impassioned response from Gendron.

“Mr. Mathews, I will not tolerate that,” the council president said. “I am trying to be respectful, and I told you we are going to have a work session, you will be able to make your comments.”

Tensions showed elsewhere in the meeting when Councilors Julia Brown and David Soucy, both new to the council, said that going forward, they hope all councilors are made aware of items that will appear on the agenda. Two agenda items, both related to transfers of funds in the city budget, were sponsored by the remaining five councilors, while a third, the zoning amendment, was sponsored by four other councilors. The placement suggests a dynamic that emerged during the campaign season, when Councilors Gendron, Brien, James Cournoyer, Denise Sierra and John Ward supported each other’s candidacies, may continue into the months ahead.

“I hope that moving forward, we can all work together and include everyone in these matters so us newbies can make an informed opinion and have a clear say in what goes on,” said Brown.

The two budget transfer items also echoed back to a previous council dynamic. Last June, several councilors had attempted to amend Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s proposed budget but were not successful in overriding her veto. The two budget transfers, approved on a 5-2 vote, transferred $420,000 from individual department budgets to the city’s contingency fund, creating a budget that more closely aligns with the one councilors had tried to effect in June. The move drew opposition from Brown and Soucy, who requested councilors hold off on a vote to more closely consider the matter during a work session.