WOONSOCKET — Members of the City Council juggled apology and indignation after a representative of the governor’s office was abruptly refused admittance to City Hall Monday due to the administration’s social distancing rules.
Tom Avila, a program advisor, had been placed on the agenda days earlier to talk about the pandemic relief plan for business known as PPP – for Paycheck Protection Plan.
The meeting began with confusion about whether Avila would show up, because he had a scheduling conflict. But Daniela Fairchild, a fill-in for Avila, reached the entryway to City Hall shortly after the meeting began, at which point Council President Dan Gendron was notified of her arrival via text and Public Safety Director Eugene Jalette rose from his seat in the council chambers – apparently to greet her.
“Is she coming up?” Gendron asked.
Jalette, however, returned moments later – unaccompanied – unexpectedly announcing that she would not be allowed to appear before the council, citing pandemic-related restrictions that have been in place for more than a year.
“We have a suspension here in the chambers for any outside participation,” Jalette said. “We’re going to hold true to that.”
Jalette apologized “for any confusion” and added that Fairchild offered to make a video about her presentation that the city could post to its website.
But several members of the council appeared stunned by the abrupt dismissal of a liaison from Gov. Dan McKee’s office, especially on a topic of vital interest to local businesses. The McKee administration is making similar presentations in communities around the state in a final push for applications before the PPP program sunsets at the end of the month.
Among other things, councilors said Fairchild could easily have made a live presentation in compliance with the prevailing social distancing restrictions observed by the Rhode Island Department of Health. And if it was the administration’s intent to deny her entry it had several days to advise the governor’s office before she made a wasted trip.
“Frankly I’m a bit taken aback that our guest was not allowed to come up here and speak to us and find it somewhat inconsistent with current regulations, but I think this City Hall has gone over the top as it is,” said Council Vice President John Ward. “I think it’s just wrong.”
So did Gendron.
“I’m somewhat embarrassed at what took place tonight,” the council president said.
Although councilors didn’t know it at the time, the scheduling conflict that kept Avila from keeping his date in the city was that he was also booked to make a presentation about PPP before the Town Council in North Smithfield. Avila was doing just that – in person – around the very time Fairchild was turned away from City Hall.
“You couldn’t have a tale of two cities more polarized than North Smithfield and Woonsocket when it comes to working with the governor’s liaison,” Gendron said after he found out about Avila’s appearance in the neighboring town.
Reached for comment Tuesday, however, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt defended the administration’s pandemic restrictions at City Hall as a better-safe-than-sorry precaution in the city, which has long had some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the general population and, more recently, among the lowest rates of vaccination. She said Fire Chief Paul Shatraw, who is in charge of the city’s COVID-19 response, is developing a plan for reopening City Hall sometime between June 1 and July 1, and that plan will be grounded in science.
“This is something that’s in the forefront of our minds, but we have to take into account the health and well-being of the employees at City Hall, too,” she said. “Let’s not make this about politics, please.”
As for governor’s liaison, the mayor said she had no idea the city was expecting a substitute for Avila, and Gendron knew before the meeting, or should have, that he wouldn’t be allowed entry to City Hall because City Solicitor John DeSimone told him so. If someone other than Avila showed up for the meeting, it would have been inappropriate for that person to appear before the council for other reasons, she said, suggesting it would have violated the Open Meetings Act as an unadvertised agenda item.
Gendron had been gently nudging the administration to loosen the rules on the public’s admission to City Hall for weeks, but Monday’s episode marked a sharp change in tone. It also became a springboard for council members to double down on their intention to begin readmitting visitors to their meetings by the first week of June – regardless of what the city administration’s official policy is.
The timeline roughly parallels a forecast already adopted by the School Committee, which is shooting to end restrictions by May 26.
The School Committee has been meeting remotely via a digital videoconferencing platform since former Gov. Gina Raimondo (now U.S. Commerce Secretary) declared a state of emergency well over a year ago, on March 9, 2020. The council had been doing the same but had switched to live meetings with no visitors a few weeks ago. The council has also suspended the public comment portion of meetings, known as “good and welfare,” for the duration of the pandemic.
Councilors are hoping to end the suspension on public comment when live meetings resume next month. The plan dovetails with Gov. McKee’s previously announced schedule for eliminating all COVID-related restrictions on the size of indoor public gatherings, which roll back to 80 percent of capacity on Friday, May 7, and vanish completely effective May 28.
“I won’t say we will do it,” said Ward, adding, “I hope we will do it. Because I know according to regulations we can do it.”
Meanwhile, Gendron said he is aiming to reschedule a briefing on PPP from a representative of the governor’s office for another meeting on May 17.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo