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Election drama may center on City Council

November 6, 2011

WOONSOCKET — If the October primary was a preview of how tomorrow’s election will turn out, most of the drama will center on a handful of City Council candidates who might have a shot a finishing last.
Much of the suspense may focus on whether incumbent Councilwoman Stella Guerra Brien can improve her standing in the primary enough to knock her father-in-law, Albert G. Brien, from his seventh-place finish. Stella Brien finished ninth in the primary, but she was just 33 votes behind the elder Brien.
Though it happens, incumbents rarely lose re-election bids for City Council in Woonsocket. It’s only happened to two incumbents in the last five election cycles.
In all, 14 candidates are vying for seven seats on the City Council in tomorrow’s election. There are also 10 candidates for five openings on the School Committee and four referendum questions, including a controversial measure to combine local elections with those on the state and federal calendar. Currently, local candidates run on an odd-year, biennial cycle, so they’re never on the same ballot with state and federal candidates.
There are few predictions that can be made with certainty about the election, but Estelle Corriveau, manager of the Board of Canvassers, thinks it’s a pretty safe bet that fewer ballots will be cast than the last citywide election, in which roughly 30 percent of the city’s 22,840 registered voters cast ballots.
More than 1,000 new voters have registered in Woonsocket since then, but there is no mayoral
contest to draw them to the polls. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine was elected to his first term in a feisty three-way contest in 2009, but this year he faces no opposition.
“Fewer ballots will be cast than there were two years ago,” she says.
Free to focus on supporting other candidates, Fontaine said he has been stumping on behalf of Council President John F. Ward, Councilman Dan Gendron and Stella Brien. He has also been supporting Chris Roberts, a member of the zoning board who is running for School Committee, as well as incumbent School Committeewoman Anita McGuire Forcier.
Matt Wojcik, the city’s economic development director and a keen observer of the political scene, is predicting that the election — among council candidates, at any rate — will largely be an affirmation of the Oct. 11 primary.
“I think it’s going to be an almost identical result, except there’s going to be room for a little squish around last place,” he says.
One of the biggest surprises in the primary was the strength of Robert R. Moreau, the chairman of the Zoning Board, who finished just eight votes behind top-finisher Ward, with 1,074 votes. Gendron was a close third, followed by incumbents Christopher Beauchamp and Roger G. Jalette Sr. The current chairman of the School Committee, Marc Dubois, finished sixth, followed by Albert Brien, a former state legislator who also served a stint as city finance director in the 1980s.
Seven other candidates are also in the running for council, including Stella Brien, James C. Cournoyer, Philip E. Labrecque, Kathryn LeBlanc, Steven Lima, Garrett S. Mancieri and Roland Michaud.
No matter what happens at the polls, at least two new faces will emerge on the council, because incumbents Suzanne Vadenais and William Schneck aren’t seeking re-election.
A similar dynamic is at work on the School Committee, where incumbent Linda Majewski is stepping down, and the chairman — Dubois — is leaving to run for City Council. In addition to McGuire-Forcier, the only other incumbents on the ballot are Vimala Phongsavanh and Eleanor M. Nadeau.
Also on the ballot are John V. Donlon Jr., Anthony J. Gabriele, Jeffrey A. Hardy, George E. King, Allen R. Rivers, Christopher Roberts and Thomas W. Wrona.
Meanwhile, voters will also decide four referendum questions recommended earlier this year by the Charter Review Commission and the City Council.
If approved, supporters say Question 3 would save about $50,000 every two years and increase voter turnout by melding state, local and federal elections on a single ballot. But detractors — Mayor Fontaine among them — say combining all the elections on one ballot would swamp voters with too much information and take the focus off local issues.
Question 1 on the ballot is a bookkeeping measure that would allow the city to borrow to float bonds for up to 30 years instead of the existing ceiling, 20 years.
Question 2 raises the purchasing limit to $5,000 before certain requirements of competitive bidding kick in. The current limit is $2,000. The city would still have to obtain comparison quotes for purchases up to $5,000, but it wouldn’t have to draw up formal bid specs or solicit sealed bids unless the limit is exceeded.
Question 4 would amend the home rule charter to require that appointees to local boards and commissions be city residents. The overwhelming majority already are, though in cases were certain professional expertise is required, the city sometimes looks beyond its borders for help. If Question 4 passes, city officials would lose that leeway.

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