WOONSOCKET – Mayoral candidates Leo T. Fontaine, Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and David A. Fisher skirmished Friday night over economic development in the city, the state-appointed Budget Commission, and the challenges facing education in the city in the third debate before next week’s primary election.
The only scheduled debate before the primary election that will knock two of the four candidates on the ballot out of the contest on Tuesday, the Call’s mayoral debate at Harris Hall was standing room only as three of the four candidates for mayor fielded questions from a panel that included Call reporters and broadcasters from radio stations WOON and WNRI, and a senior at Mount St. Charles Academy.
Mayoral candidate Michael E. Moniz, who has appeared on local election ballots multiple times in the past, declined an invitation to attend last night’s debate.
The top two vote-getters will face off in the general election Nov. 5.
The biggest sparks at the debate were generated over economic development, specifically a heated exchange between incumbent Mayor Fontaine and Baldelli-Hunt over Fontaine’s press conference earlier this week in which the mayor rolled out a detailed plan for rejuvenating the city’s economy and eliminating blight. The plan has several major prongs, including development of a new 30-acre office park alongside the Blackstone River, which the administration says could create 500 jobs.
Responding to a question pertaining to the timing of the announcement and whether he thought it was too little, too late, Fontaine said the plan was not something that was crafted at the last minute to gain political points before the primary.
“We started putting this plan in place well over a year ago and to say this is something we just came out with is a misstatement and unfair,’ said Fontaine, adding the plan was developed in concert with Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik, the Woonsocket Redevelopment Agency and the Planning Board.
“We wanted the people to see what the plan was and what we have been working on,” Fontaine said. “Why would have I done this after the election?”
As for his record on economic development, two-term incumbent Fontaine, who was reelected in 2011, cited Highland Corporate Park as an example where his administration worked closely to keep businesses from relocating and to give them the tools to expand and add jobs.
In her response to the question, Baldelli-Hunt, who is in the middle of her fourth term in the state House of Representatives, pulled no punches, saying the administration’s decision to roll out such an elaborate economic development plan five days before an election primary was “political expediency.”
She went one step further and accused Fontaine of pilfering the plan from former Mayor Susan D. Menard.
“You make it sound like you’ve been working on this plan for four years, yet no one heard of it before this week,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “I think the mayor needs to check his truthfulness going forward. The plan you’ve put forward is curious. In fact, It was put forth by Mayor Menard, Joel Mathews (former city planning director) and Michael Annarummo (former director of administration). It was taken out of mothballs and handed to you four days ago.”
Fontaine waved copies of the minutes of past meetings of the Redevelopment Agency and Planning Board where the plan was discussed, saying he chose to highlight the plan this week “because I thought it was important to present a clear document of what we have done.”
“Frankly, we haven’t seen a plan from Mrs. Baldellli-Hunt. Turning on street lights is not an economic development plan,” he said.
“We have ideas and we have plans,” responded Baldelli-Hunt, “and, yes, putting streetlights on is a part of that plan.”
In his response to the question, Fisher stayed out of the debate over whether or not Fontaine’s announcement of the plan was a political ploy, saying only that it was “obviously a plan that was not put together overnight.”
“What is more disturbing to me is that the Woonsocket Redevelopment Agency was defunct for a decade,” said Fisher, who is making his first run for local office. “The real problem is that the old model of attracting and retaining business is a broken model. We need to have a plan and we need vision. We need tax breaks for small existing businesses. It’s one thing to get them here, but it’s another to get them to stay.”
When Baldelli-Hunt was asked by a reporter on the debate panel to discuss her credentials as real estate developer, she corrected the questioner, saying she was not a real estate developer, but a real estate investor who, along with her husband, has invested in several residential and commercial properties over the years, including a strip plaza on Social Street, a building on Route 146 and a biomedical facility on Cumberland Hill Road.
Without getting into any elaborate detail, Fontaine questioned Baldelli-Hunt’s “ethics and intent” with regard to her investment offers on a handful of properties in the city, including an offer she put in and then withdrew to purchase Gaston A. Ayotte Field, at the corner of Providence Street and Smithfield Road.
“That’s not what we need at City Hall,” the mayor said.
The trio also answered questions regarding the state-appointed Budget Commission, and whether they had a plan to get Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly to return power and control back to the city.
Fontaine said the Budget Commission, which he is a member of, was a process that was rushed though the General Assembly, a process that put the city in a difficult position.
“The whole process was problematic from the get-go, but it was necessary to keep the schools open,” said Fontaine, adding he has had conversations with Booth Gallogly to review the process to make it better.
“The Budget Commission was rushed in because they determined that you could not handle the finances of the city,” Baldelli-Hunt responded.
“The reason the Budget Commission is here is because the city’s finances were not handled correctly. You are the Budget Commission. The mayor and John Ward (City Councilman) are 40 percent of the Budget Commission, and they don’t even listen to the council,” she added,
Fontaine blamed the city’s financial problems on the state, saying its problems were caused by a loss of some $55 million in aid since 2008, a situation which forced the city to the brink of bankruptcy and left it under the control of the budget commission.
When accused by Baldelli-Hunt of underfunding local schools, Fontaine said he never cut education funding on the local level.
“The state has been underfunding local education for years, and you, Mrs. Representative, are the state. You voted for those budgets,” he said.
On the question of the Budget Commission, Fisher said: “I’m a big fan of local government. What I see in the Budget Commission is the state using at-risk cities and towns as a science lab. The biggest problem I have is not that the Budget Commission is here, but that their thinking mirrors the thinking of the politicians and the status quo.”
Last night’s debate was the latest in one of the most debate-filled campaign cycles in the city in years. In addition to a series of radio debates sponsored by radio station WNRI, the Black Initiatives Group (BIG) is sponsoring individual debates for City Council and mayoral races after the primary.
The contenders for council will debate on Oct. 10, those for mayor on Oct. 18. Both events will take place at 7 p.m. at St. James Baptist Church, 340 South Main St.