WOONSOCKET – As a limited reopening of City Hall to the public begins today for the first time since shutting down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Council Vice President Jon Brien and Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt are sparring over whether the administration is moving to restore in-person services quickly enough.
Among other things, Brien, who is challenging the mayor in the general election, claimed he had forced Baldelli-Hunt's hand on the reopening by announcing his intention to raise the issue during a council meeting on Monday night. The mayor disclosed her plans for City Hall in a press release several hours before the remote meeting.
Generally, Brien portrayed the city as a slow-moving outlier in getting its municipal offices reopened for essential services, particularly those associated with real estate transactions and, during a “crucial” phase of the election cycle, the activities of the Board of Canvassers.
Brien said he had surveyed 25 cities and towns to see how their municipal offices were functioning at this point in the pandemic. More than half were open, he said.
“Smithfield is open. Lincoln is open. Glocester is open. North Smithfield is opening,” Brien said. “Warwick is open. Providence is open. Cranston is open by appointment and Blackstone is also open by appointment.”
Brien said it was essential for the city to reopen not just the treasury – the only function of City Hall offering customer-facing services so far – but the clerk's office, which is where the property records needed for many real estate activities are located.
“With City Hall being closed and no access to the vault we're having a problem and I'm hearing from people within our community, and from without the community, that are either trying to buy or sell a home; I'm hearing from real estate agents who can't get closings done because they can't begin a proper title search; I'm hearing from attorneys who can't get into the vault who desperately need to get into the vault,” Brien said. “More than just treasury we have to concentrate on opening City Hall to the public.”
Brien also expressed concern over the Board of Canvassers having been refused entry to the building. For essential gatherings during the pandemic, including the presidential primary, the three-member board has either met under a tent on the sidewalk outside City Hall or in a closet-size vestibule a few feet from a first-floor entryway.
Today, for a meeting to validate signatures on nomination forms – a vital step in the secretary of state's formation of the ballot for the November election – the board was scheduled to meet at One Depot Square. That development was particularly worrisome, Brien said, because the building is leased from the state Department of Transportation by one of the candidates whose signatures the board is expected to validate.
Brien didn't mention the candidate by name, but Vincent J. Bono, the president of the Boston Surface Railroad Company, leases the historic train station from RIDOT. He's running against Steve Lima, a former city planner, for the House District 49 seat presently held by State Rep. Michael Morin.
Brien said the arrangement may be entirely lawful and procedurally sound. He added, however, “It's not something we should be engaging in...It's not a good look for the city of Woonsocket.”
After Brien's comments, Baldelli-Hunt joined the discussion on the Zoom videoconferencing platform to clarify his statements and defend the city's record as a watchdog for public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We understand what is going on,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “We've been in the thick of this right from the beginning. This is not something that's new to us as the administration. We will be moving forward with the gradual reopening of departments, but we will do so in a fashion that keeps the employees and the public safe.”
Among the municipalities mentioned by Brien, Baldelli Hunt said most were only just getting back to normal operational procedures. While employees have been working at Woonsocket City Hall through the pandemic, Baldelli-Hunt said that until recently, Providence wasn't even allowing workers to enter its City Hall.
Along with Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls, Baldelli-Hunt said, Woonsocket has cause for extra precaution in the resumption of operations, since its test-positivity rates are among the highest in the state, a point Gov. Gina Raimondo and Health Director Nicole Alexander Scott have repeatedly underscored in their COVID-19 briefings. For example, in the test-positivity rates listed on the Rhode Island Department of Health's COVID-19 data page yesterday, Woonsocket and Pawtucket were tied for fourth-highest in the state at 14 percent. North Providence was third, with 15 percent; Providence was second, with 19 percent; and Central Falls was in first place, with 22 percent.
The state's overall test-positivity rate in the most recent daily batches of tests is around 2 percent, or lower.
Although hospitalizations are trending down, COVID-19 has caused the deaths of 985 Rhode Islanders and sickened about 17,588 since roughly March 1.
“Yes, we do have some employees who are still very nervous about working with the public,” Baldelli-Hunt said.
With Woonsocket Fire Chief Paul Shatraw handling the effort, Baldelli-Hunt said, the city will proceed with a gradual reopening of City Hall, on a department-by-department basis.
As for the timing of her announcement about the reopening of City Hall, Baldelli-Hunt rejected Brien's suggestion that he had forced her hand.
“Contrary to what Councilman Brien may think, this isn't something that comes together in 48 hours or 72 hours,” she said. “If you want to take credit, that's fine.”
The timing seemed less than coincidental to Brien, however.
“I'm going to have to put more stuff on the agenda, this way here you'll get press releases before the city council meetings and things will happen,” Brien said as he began his case for reopening City Hall. “That's more than fine with me.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo