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Joel Mathews to retire for good

May 3, 2011

WOONSOCKET — Longtime Planning Director Joel D. Mathews has retired — again. But this time it looks like it’s the real deal.
He made his intentions plain in a letter forwarded to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine last week, two days after clearing out his office, co-workers said.
“Upon this occasion of my retirement, I would like to issue a very public thank you,” Mathews said in the letter, which was released to the press on Monday. “I believe I've been very fortunate to have held the very best job in Woonsocket.”
Except for a hiatus of about three years in the mid-1980s, Mathews had been employed by the city since 1973, said Personnel Director Christina Duarte.
He actually tendered his retirement notice in May 2010, but the transaction was mostly on paper. For a time, Duarte said, he even waived the collection of his pension, though his benefits were frozen at the level in place at the time of his retirement. Mathews remained a fixture in City Hall after the 2010 notice, working under a state law that allows municipal retirees to stay on the job for up to 75 days per calendar year, said Duarte. He renewed the temporary commitment in January after the mayor asked him to stay on.
“I'm under the impression it's for good this time,” she said. “He didn't want any fanfare. We were expecting him to work a full week last week but he just snuck out of City Hall on Wednesday.”
Trained as an architect, Mathews was hired as an assistant planner in 1973, but he has been the director of the city's planning department almost continuously since 1980. He returned to the private sector in 1986, but he was rehired as planning director in 1989, said Duarte.
As a member of the planning department, Mathews has played a key role in the construction of virtually every building the city has erected since he was hired, including the Woonsocket Harris Library, Woonsocket police headquarters, the Thundermist Hydroelectric Plant and several schools.
Most recently, he served as chairman of the committee that oversaw the construction of the $80 million, twin middle schools off Hamlet Avenue that were finished about a year ago.
But he was also a well-known go-to guy at City Hall for special projects and interim missions that were often outside the scope of his familiar turf as a planner. Several years ago, for example, when former Mayor Susan D. Menard found herself suddenly short of help, she appointed Mathews as interim finance director in the midst of a citywide property revaluation.
In his retirement letter, Mathews thanked not just Fontaine, but fellow workers and city residents for their support and trust.
“I say that I've held the very best job in our city because of this trust, and the opportunity to interact with numerous members of the public...” Mathews said. “I have appreciated the substantial help, work commitment and comraderie extended to me by the many exceptional employees that I have had the privilege to work with over the years.”
City Councilman Roger G. Jalette Sr. says it's hard to exaggerate how great a loss Mathew's departure represents to the city.
“In my opinion it's the biggest loss the city will see out of all the people that City Hall may have lost because of the restructuring of government or other retirements in recent years,” he said. “All of his experience and knowledge is simply not going to be there anymore. It takes time to train someone or even to try to get someone as qualified as he is.”
With the city operating in financial crisis mode, it's not unusual to see key personnel appointments unfilled or consoldated with others in attempts to cut budgets. Fontaine, who was tied up in budget meetings for much of the day Tuesday, could not be reached for comment on how he plans to deal with Mathews' retirement.

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