BARRY FIELD BLOW-UP
City Council, administration trade barbs over plan to clear title to city-owned land
WOONSOCKET – The political fallout from the Barry Field brouhaha continued Monday as the City Council passed a measure prohibiting Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s administration from hiring outside lawyers without obtaining its approval in advance.
The move, which passed on a 4-2 vote, comes after councilors complained they were blindsided by the administration’s efforts in Superior Court to lift restrictions on the deed to 22-acre Barry Field, possibly enabling the city to sell it. One councilman, Vice President Jon Brien, branded the lawsuit “fraudulent” because it incorrectly indicates that the School Committee, which controls the parcel, had consented to the legal maneuver – a charge he resurrected prior to voting Monday.
Councliman Richard Fagnant, who introduced the measure, said the council also should have been notified of an earlier, unrelated receivership petition filed in Superior Court against Dorado Properties, particularly because the move robs the city of control over the fate of the company’s abandoned factory buildings overlooking the Blackstone River. City Solicitor John DeSimone, Fagnant said, should not have kept the council in the dark about Dorado Properties and, more recently, Barry Field.
“We should have been notified by his office on this action to be filed in Superior Court,” said Fagnant.
Brien, Fagnant, Council President Dan Gendron and Councilwoman Denise Sierra voted in favor of the measure, which requires the council’s prior approval before the city hires any outside law firm, with a disclosure statement of the specific nature of the work involved. In a meeting marked by sometimes testy exchanges, Councilors Melissa Murray and Christopher Beauchamp voted against the measure and Desimone strongly protested.
The solicitor said it would hamper the law department’s flexibility to act in emergencies on short notice and interfere with his discretion in choosing outside lawyers he thinks will best serve the city’s interests.
“From a legal point of view I have to be comfortable with the lawyers I have to hire, and I am accountable to the council budgetarily and I’m also accountable for results,” DeSimone objected. “It handcuffs the solicitor’s office. There’s really no need for it.”
Beauchamp dismissed the proposed resolution as an overreaction to an incident he characterized as little more than a case of poor communication between the administration and the council over Barry Field. He said he’s satisfied the council has sufficient control of the law department by holding the purse strings on its $200,000 budget for outside lawyers.
“Because some people’s feelings were hurt that they weren’t notified, we didn’t know about it...to me it wasn’t a big deal,” said Beauchamp.
“I don’t think it was fraudulent. Communication could have been better, no doubt about it,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Brien reaffirmed his characterization of the lawsuit in a lengthy monologue he delivered after invoking a rarely seen parliamentary maneuver covered in Robert’s Rules of Order, the handbook of public meetings. He asked for, and obtained, permission from DeSimone to speak in the context of a non-debatable “point of personal privilege” to address how Baldelli-Hunt had responded to his allegations of fraud in interviews with The Call and radio station WNRI.
He said it was insulting for the mayor to shrug off his allegations as “garbage,” arguing that the council was exercising a legitimate watchdog role over the actions of the administration.
“That’s not garbage,” Brien said. “That’s what we’re elected to do. We’re the legislative branch of government. We all hold each other accountable in some way.”
Lecturing Baldelli-Hunt as she sat beside DeSimone in Harris Hall, Brien insisted that his characterization of the Barry Field suit as fraudulent was not false, as the mayor claims. Among other things, he said, the suit misrepresents materials facts that were presented the Superior Court as true, including the supposed affirmative consent of the School Committee, claims that the property had been “abandoned” by the Woonsocket Education Department and that it was no longer needed for educational purposes.
As proof, Brien cited a let- ter that was issued on behalf of the School Committee by Chairman Soren Seale after the council’s first public discussion of the suit last month. It was The Call, however, that first disclosed the existence of the suit on Nov. 15, after a related legal advertisement had been faxed to the newspaper. The news story about the lawsuit, Woonsocket versus the Woonsocket Agricultural, Horticultural and Industrial Society, marked the first time most members of the council, or the school committee for that matter, had heard of the suit.
In a letter addressed to the mayor on Nov. 28, Seale wrote, “Please understand that the School Committee did not take any action, at any time, by way of resolution, policy, or other vote to endorse this complaint.” In particular, Seale said, the panel took no actions to corroborate the facts set forth in three paragraphs claiming the committee “has determined that it has no use of the property as an athletic field and playground...and has abandoned or intends to abandon the property for school use and transfer control of same to the city.”
The mayor has framed the lawsuit as part of broader plan to create a replacement for Barry Field – Woonsocket High School’s varsity football gridiron – as part of a modern, multi-feature athletic complex at Cass Park, conveniently located next to the high school. Seale said the committee supports the idea “in principle” and remains willing to discuss it with the Planning Board, but it cannot support the complaint at this time because “to do so would put at risk the only currently available playing fields for our students.”
“The effort to remove the ‘cloud’ on the title to Barry Field appears to be premature,” he said.
Despite Brien’s assertion of speaking under a nondebatable privilege, BaldelliHunt managed to squeeze in a rebuttal before DeSimone intervened.
“There was no fraud,” Baldelli-Hunt told Brien. “I know you like to use that word loosely. Obviously if there was any fraud, you would need to direct that to the solicitor.”
Reiterating a pledge he made to the council last month, DeSimone said he has instructed the law firm of Sinapi Law Associates to withdraw the complaint. Though news of the lawsuit surfaced for the first time in mid-November, documents subsequently obtained by The Call show the city had been talking to Sinapi Law Associates about amending the deed to Barry Field since September 2016 – a year before the lawsuit was filed. The city formally engaged the firm in January at a cost of $250 to $350 an hour, depending on which member of the staff is doing the work.
A onetime horse-racing track known as Trotting Park, the land at issue was conveyed to the city in 1925 by the long-defunct Woonsocket Agricultural, Horticultural and Industrial Society. Despite the fact that the parcel came with significant restrictions on its use, the city council in power at the time voted 4-3 to pay $75,000 for the parcel, which was later named in honor of the late Dr. William Barry, a former member of the school committee. In 2017 dollars, the price would be more than $1 million.
The parcel abuts Smithfield Road at the North Smithfield line and Providence Street – an area that has evolved into prime commercial real estate over the years. The deed to Barry Field, however, says the parcel was conveyed to the city on condition that it be set aside in perpetuity for use as athletic fields, playgrounds, school buildings or other educational purposes.