By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – Insisting it isn’t meddling in the mayoral contest, the City Council voted unanimously Monday to instruct Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to prepare Harris Hall for a campaign debate between herself and one of its members, Council Vice President Jon Brien, her challenger.
But councilors also made it plain that, though the City Charter binds the chief executive to follow their instructions, it’s still an open question whether the two candidates may agree to meet somewhere else if they can’t reach a consensus on the location.
Though Brien foreshadowed the council’s action last week, he did not participate in discussion leading up to vote. And more than one councilor pointed out that the vote merely instructs the mayor to prepare Harris Hall for a properly socially-distanced debate – a vote that came not upon the request of Brien, nor any other councilor, but radio station WNRI.
“This was a request of the radio station,” said Council President Dan Gendron, speaking in a live meeting from Harris Hall. “This is the people’s hall. It has the most accessibility via the technology available to us to make it the most transparent process and the most visible process to the people, the voters, of Woonsocket.”
The radio station is sponsoring the debate, presently set for Oct. 21. The two candidates have agreed to the date, but they haven’t shaken hands yet on a location.
Efforts to reach Baldelli-Hunt for comment about the latest developments Tuesday were not successful. City Hall remains mostly closed to the general public due to COVID-19, however, and she has repeatedly called for prudence about reopening the building (of which Harris Hall is a part) for the debate, saying many who work there are on the older side and remain anxious about the health risks associated with catching COVID-19.
Baldelli-Hunt has previously suggested there are locations other than Harris Hall equipped for live cable broadcasts. That used to be true, but it hasn’t been since Verizon became the city’s service provider, taking control from Cox Communications, according to Roger Bouchard, general manager of WNRI.
Cox used to have a “cable drop” to facilitate live broadcasts in four locations, including World War II Park, Harris Library, Woonsocket Middle School and Harris Hall. But all were abandoned except for Harris Hall when Verizon took over some time ago, Bouchard said.
“It’s the only place in the city that has one,” said Bouchard. “If it’s going to be broadcast live, it has to be at Harris Hall.”
During Monday’s council meeting, City Solicitor John DeSimone expressed concerns that the vote would create the appearance that the council was attempting to take sides on decisions that rightly belong to those of the candidates.
“I understand the intent of it – I think it’s misplaced intent,” said DeSimone. “We can’t be – the council or the mayor for that matter – can’t be making governmental acts to affect a political campaign.”
Councilman Alexander Kithes said the only reason he supported the request is that it came from the radio station.
Likening the resolution to an edict that might come out of a police state like North Korea, Kithes said, “I was a little nervous reading it. It felt a little weird to be voting on something... basically mandating an aspect of the political process..to be in the place that we wanted,” especially since five members of the council typically vote as a bloc.
Councilman James Cournoyer – who doesn’t see eye to eye with Baldelli-Hunt on much – surprisingly came to her defense Monday on taking precautions against COVID-19 in City Hall. Just look at what happened in Washington, D.C., last week with President Trump and a number of aides and U.S. senators who all tested positive, he suggested.
“So it’s not unreasonable to have some concerns, but it can be managed,” Cournoyer said, in a comment that quickly morphed into a preamble for a proposal for even stricter limits on the number people who would be admitted to Harris Hall during the debate than the number originally proposed: Nine.
The original version of the measure granted access to media technician Paul Jacob and an assistant, the moderator and the two candidates, each of whom could also bring two guests.
Cournoyer proposed amending the resolution so that the candidates would have to come alone, limiting the total number of participants to just five. With that figure, he said, concerns about spreading COVID-19 to employees should be allayed.
“They’re not going to be running around the rest of City Hall, going into offices, etcetera,” Cournouyer said. “It’s going to be very in-and-out.”
His proposed amendment, as well as the followup vote on the full resolution, both passed unanimously. Like other members of the panel, Cournoyer emphasized that the council’s approval of the measure doesn’t compel the two candidates to have a debate, it merely instructs the mayor or members of her administration to prepare the building for one.
Reached for comment after the meeting, Brien said he didn’t think it was appropriate for him to engage in the discussion about the debate resolution. Although the request to use Harris Hall came from WNRI, Brien said he and other councilors support the use of the site for the debate because, like the radio station, they want the event to reach the largest audience possible.
“In the age of COVID we want to make sure as many people have access to this debate as possible and that’s through cable television,” he said.
But Brien declined to say whether he would meet at another location if Baldelli-Hunt calls for some alternative to Harris Hall. He says a debate in Harris Hall is fundamentally no more or less risky than a debate anywhere people work and that arguably, Harris Hall might be safer because the individuals associated with the debate are, for the most part, already moving about the building on a regular basis.
“If we’re talking about safety, City Hall is a fine place to do it because the people that would be there, by and large, have already been to City Hall,” he said. “The only person who hasn’t been in City Hall would be Jeff Gamache.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo