City Coun­cil, ad­min­is­tra­tion trade barbs over plan to clear ti­tle to city-owned land

Woonsocket Call - - Front Page - By RUSS OLIVO ro­livo@woonsock­et­

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 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.

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