By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – The City Council Monday invoked its rarely-used investigatory powers under the City Charter to initiate a probe into published allegations that Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt may have wrongfully urged a disgruntled employee to participate in a “plot” to get rid of City Clerk Christina Harmon.
The council voted unanimously to approve a resolution to launch the investigation at the end of a regular meeting in Harris Hall. The council voted without discussion and Baldelli-Hunt, who was in attendance, said nothing.
But City Council President Daniel Gendron, in an interview later, said he has no preconceived ideas about where the investigation might lead and that the sole purpose of the probe is to find out what did, or didn’t, happen.
He also backed away from portraying the investigation as focused exclusively on Baldelli-Hunt, but rather, “the incident” in which she and other co-workers were involved.
“In this case the city council is in effect the supervisor of the city clerk’s department and we need to do this investigation and find out where the truth is and what happened, if anything wrong happened,” the council president said. “We have legal counsel to find out how far we can go and we’ll do what’s necessary.”
In a related measure, the council voted to hire lawyer Nicholas Gorham to assist the council in the probe. Gendron said the panel did so, as it has in other matters in which the interests of the council and the administration are potentially at odds, to relieve City Solicitor John DeSimone of an inherent conflict embedded in the City Charter, which requires him to serve as legal counsel for both the executive and legislative branches of government.
The latter measure also passed unanimously, with an amendment proposed by Councilman Alexander Kithes, capping Gorham’s maximum reimbursement at $10,000. His hourly rate is $150, according to Gendron, though he said it’s possible that the council may not require Gorham’s assistance at all.
“We may not use him at all if the investigation falls flat,” he said. “If we have an issue along the way we can call him and ask him questions.”
Baldelli-Hunt said she welcomes the investigation.
“It’s important that all employees within the city of Woonsocket are treated fairly and I have strong interests in knowing the outcome of the investigation,” she said. “This is not an investigation of the mayor’s office; it’s an investigation of the clerk’s office.”
Baldelli-Hunt did have one critique for the council, however, saying they needn’t have hired a lawyer before finding out whether possible employee-witnesses might have voluntarily offered to provide testimony.
“I do have concern with them utilizing taxpayer dollars,” she said.
The passage of the resolutions comes about three weeks after the allegations first surfaced in a story published by The Providence Journal. The story quoted an aide in the clerk’s office, Paul Trofa, and Harmon – his boss – as well as tape-recorded conversations of their dealings with each other, after Trofa apparently complained about Harmon to Baldelli-Hunt.
Much of the story deals with what happened after Harmon suggested to Trofa that he spend less time “shooting the breeze” with patrons to deal with paperwork. The story asserts that when Trofa went to the mayor to ask to be reassigned, “her words basically were: You are going to stay where you are...You are going to help us get rid of the clerk” – supposedly by asserting that the clerk was actively discouraging him from helping customers.
The story also says that Harmon was told that, during the course of her dealings with Trofa, her assigned parking space behind City Hall was given to someone else and that she learned from tech aides at City Hall that there was evidence of attempted hacking of her computer.
A City Hall veteran, Harmon is an employee under the council’s legislative bailiwick, over which the executive branch – Baldelli-Hunt’s domain – has no obvious jurisdiction. But The Providence Journal story attempts to provide context for the mayor’s possible motivation by casting Harmon as a friend of former City Council President Albert Brien, a political foe of Baldelli-Hunt who ran against her in 2018.
In the Journal story, the mayor denied asking Trofa to help her build a case against Harmon, though she acknowledged giving him her usual advice, “Like I say to anybody, ‘If you have an issue...document things.’”
The intrigue detailed in the story took place months ago, and Trofa has since gone on medical leave, officials say.
“That’s what started all this is the story in The Providence Journal,” Gendron said.
The City Charter gives the council broad powers to conduct internal investigations at City Hall, but it’s been so long since they were last invoked that few members of the current panel can recollect doing so.
One member who can is Councilman John Ward, who was serving on the council the last time it happened.
It was during the administration of former Mayor Susan D. Menard, “probably 2007 or 2008,” Ward said. The council was investigating allegations that the administration had used city help to work on private property. The council terminated the investigation without a finding.
Chapter II, Sec. 16 of the charter grants the council the authority to act much like a grand jury, allowing officials to demand the receipt of physical evidence and sworn witness testimony.
“The council shall have power by resolution to inquire into the conduct of any officer, department or other agency of the city and to make an investigation relating to city affairs and for such purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and compel the production of books, records, papers and other evidence,” the charter says.
What happens if a sought-after witness refused to answer a subpoena?
Gendron said he didn’t know – and hoped he doesn’t have to find out – but that’s what Gorham was hired for.
If Gorham’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the same lawyer who’s pressing the council’s case against the relocation of the growing RISE Prep Mayoral Academy to 30 Cumberland St. A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of RISE Prep in the zoning dispute earlier this year. Gorham appealed to the Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to hear the case.
Gendron said that until the investigation is over, he wouldn’t speculate about what sort of remedies might be at the council’s disposal to respond to its findings.
He said the proceedings will not be open to the press or public, but the council wants to conclude the probe as quickly as possibly and would ultimately issue a report to make public its findings, to the extend allowable, given potential restrictions on employees’ privacy rights.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo