By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – City politics appears to have gone to the dogs.
To be fair, cats too, and probably reptiles.
How all these creatures are cared for when they’re in the custody of the city is what’s at stake in competing visions for the future of the animal control division that are emerging from political adversaries.
Several weeks ago, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt proposed a preliminary American Rescue Plan Act budget that calls for spending up to $250,000 of the anticipated $36 million allotment to relocate the Animal Control Facility to a vacant concession stand at River’s Edge Recreational Complex. It’s all part of the mayor’s plan to consolidate animal care services in a central location that will also include a new dog park on which the city has already spent about $70,000 for fencing, pet play equipment and a nearby shade pavilion.
But Councilwoman Denise Sierra on Monday won full support from her peers on a plan that is built around preserving and upgrading the existing animal shelter, located at 5 Cumberland Hill Road – next door to the city’s regional wastewater treatment plant.
The council voted 7-0 on three separate pieces of legislation, all introduced by Sierra, instructing the administration to embark on various improvements to the animal shelter. One calls for an addition to house smaller animals, another repainting the facility and third to build a shade pavilion adjacent to the site.
All three measures were passed by the council without a word of debate from any member.
It was Sierra who led the panel to censure the mayor in September for defying the council’s previous orders to build a shade pavilion alongside 5 Cumberland Hill Road. The city, in apparent compliance with the edict, went out to bid and hired a contractor who built one for $11,395 – but it ended up at River’s Edge Recreational Complex and now stands near the almost-finished dog park.
The council settled on censuring the mayor for failing to follow a lawful ordinance, as opposed to impeaching her, after seeking an advisory opinion from City Solicitor John DeSimone about their permissible disciplinary options.
While Sierra said nothing about the new mandate to the administration Monday, she later told radio station WNRI, “The animal shelter is located in a wonderful spot.
“It’s appropriate in the spot that it currently is,” she said. “For me, as a taxpayer, I don’t agree with building an entire new building for a quarter million dollars that’s going to have a smaller footprint than the current one.”
In the radio interview, Sierra said she’s a longtime supporter of the animal shelter and sees little evidence of under-utilization due to poor visibility or proximity to the wastewater treatment plant. But she says it needs some upkeep to improve its appearance, and an outdoor shade pavilion where humans can mingle with pets they’re thinking about adopting.
“It is true that it is in disrepair,” she said. “It needs an influx of money and love to bring it back to what it needs to be.”
The original plan to put a shade pavilion at the facility dates back to 2018 – before COVID-19, which basically put a hold on broader plans to upgrade the cinderblock building, Sierra said. Now the council has endorsed her plan to instruct the administration to follow through.
The council previously rechristened the facility the Albert G. Brien Memorial Animal Shelter, in honor of the late council president who ran against Baldelli-Hunt in 2018. Sierra said the council commissioned a sign for the shelter with the appropriate dedication, but she suggested the city refrain from putting it up until her proposed improvements are complete.
Sierra said that the mayor is obligated to abide by the will of the council, as expressed in the passage of the three legislative resolutions.
In a phone interview, however, Baldelli-Hunt said she agrees in principle that animal protective services are in need of an overhaul – but she questioned whether the trifecta of dog-pound resolutions approved by the council Monday is legally valid.
Just as the City Charter requires the administration to carry out lawfully passed ordinances adopted by the council, Baldelli-Hunt said the bylaws of local government forbid the legislative branch from enacting measures that interfere with the operation of various city departments.
“If the ordinance is legal, and the administration has to spend funds on that, that’s what we do,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “Do I think it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money? I do...”
Baldelli-Hunt defends her plan for consolidating animal control and related services as one that’s in the best interest of sheltered pets and their caregivers. Her plan doesn’t call for building a new shelter with ARPA funds, but retrofitting a metal-roof concession stand at River’s Edge that never quite caught on with private vendors who had to lease it and make a profit selling snacks at sporting events.
The most sensible course of action, Baldelli-Hunt argues – for taxpayers as well as animals – is to centralize services in an open, airy greenspace with a dog park and a shade pavilion near a modern shelter for dogs and cats – or whatever else the animal control officer is asked to corral.
“There is no place for the dogs to run and play at the wastewater treatment plant,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “This is in the best interest of animals. There needs to be an animal control facility in better shape, at a better location that’s in the best interest of animals.”
The dog park was an administrative initiative that took place without input from the city council, dating back to 2017. Baldelli-Hunt seated an ad hoc commission to select a favorable location for the facility, which features separate, fenced-in areas for dogs in two sizes – big and small.
But in her radio interview Sierra said she does not support a dog park. Although people are likely to acknowledge using the facility at their own risk, a dog park puts the city in danger of assuming liability from unforeseen interactions involving animals, she said, and maintaining it will further stretch manpower in public works with chores that include picking up animal poop.
“I’m not in favor of the dog park at all,” she said. “I think it’s something our city, with the caliber and types of animal owners we have, it exposes our city to great liability. Nobody is exempt from being sued or being liable if the right attorney comes along.”
Whose vision will win the day?
Councilors have already taken the position that the administration cannot use ARPA money for anything without their ratification, which could leave the mayor’s plan for retrofitting the concession stand without a source of revenue. And Sierra observed that all her proposed ordinances were approved unanimously by the city council.
“Let’s see,” she said.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo