Civil Rights

Was a rally against the Woonsocket Mayor and City Council deliberately disrupted by city officials?

Workers from the Woonsocket Highway Department were in the park with at least three trucks and multiple leaf blowers. The leaf blowers and the trucks were so loud that the rally moved from one area of the park to a stage to hold their rally, only to have the truck, and the leaf blowers, follow them… Promptly at 2:30pm, when the rally ended, the trucks departed.
Photo for Was a rally against the Woonsocket Mayor and City Council deliberately disrupted by city officials?

Published on November 22, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

“Our neighbors are not being served appropriately by this city,” said Alex Kithes, executive director of Rebuild Woonsocket, speaking at the WWII Memorial Park in Woonsocket to a crowd of over 40 people. “We have a housing shortage, we have so much food insecurity in this city, our social service department is underfunded, and the Mayor and the City Council is constantly going after our schools and our library.”

Kithes, a former Woonsocket City Councilmember, was talking about the November 15th City Council meeting where Woonsocket residents showed up to demand that federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars be spent on more important priorities than an ice skating rink with artificial ice, a new dais for the city council to sit upon, or fancy lamp posts.

At that city council meeting, Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt was allowed to take the microphone by Council President Daniel Gendron and admonish those who spoke out against her budget. Baldelli-Hunt spent a lot of her time on the microphone going after high school student Jaliyah Joseph, who had suggested during her brief testimony that there were more important priorities that the money could be spent on.

Ahead of releasing her budget, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt executed an opinion poll to determine where residents of Woonsocket wanted to see the money spent. According to Lauren Clem at the Valley Breeze, “nearly half listed housing needs as one of their top priorities… Also high on the list of preferred spending areas were infrastructure, including road paving, mental health and domestic violence services, community health and wellness and water infrastructure.”

“We’re here today because the first $14 million in our city’s ARPA funds were budgeted by the Mayor last week and passed by the City Council for the first time on Monday and they included nothing that our neighbors [wanted],” said Kithes. “Our community members who filled out the survey demanded housing and health. And there’s nothing about that in our city’s first $14 million in ARPA funds.”

Kithes said that this rally might be the first in a series of protests demanding that the city prioritize housing and health with the ARPA money.

But it seems the Baldelli-Hunt Administration was not going to take a protest against her budget priorities quietly. UpriseRI arrived about 30 minutes before the rally was due to start. Workers from the Woonsocket Highway Department were in the park with at least three trucks and leaf blowers. The leaf blowers and the trucks were so loud that the rally moved from one area of the park to a stage to hold their rally, only to have the truck, and the leaf blowers, follow them.

Promptly at 2:30pm, when the rally ended, the trucks departed. Many wondered out loud why the Highway Department was collecting leaves, on a Sunday, at the precise time a rally against the Mayor and the City Council was happening. It felt like another in a long line of petty actions taken against those planning actions in Woonsocket by city officials.

The hum and noise of leaf blowers and trucks was near constant background noise during the rally. The noise was acknowledged by the first speaker, Marlene Guay.

“I want to thank everybody for braving this weather, coming out and quite frankly tolerating some of the challenges that have been put before us for us to be able to use our first amendment rights to be able to fight and to argue for the rights of members of our community,” said Guay.

“The city government, this week, acknowledged what their priorities are,” continued Guay. “That is a fake ice skating rink, that is ergonomic chairs… we are struggling and that demand was made very clear this summer as ll the residents filled out their surveys…”

“I’m going to be homeless on the third of December because the landlord don’t want to do nothing they want $750 of my check every month,” said Woonsocket resident Isabell Colson. “I’m not even going to all my doctor’s appointments because of all this stuff and I don’t know what else to do…”

“I’ve lived here, gone to school with my sister here, and have been fighting to make this a better place for everyone for a decade,” said Woonsocket resident Alice Ellis. “So it saddens – it enrages me – to see our mayor and municipal government waste federal money with utter disregard for the most vulnerable members of our community.”

“I’m scared,” said Woonsocket resident and activist Nwando Ofokansi. “I’m concerned that my neighbors – my community members, my friends, my students – are going to freeze to death. I’m concerned that they’re being left outside and not being prioritized as people who are in need of resources in the City of Woonsocket.”

Next up were two health care workers:

“What we’ve seen is an all out emergency,” said Dr Paul. “This is nothing like what I’ve seen anywhere else I’ve worked. Every week I’m meeting patients who are telling me there’s a really high chance they could their housing, within the next week. This is an ongoing crisis and winter is now here…”

“It’s disheartening to see what the city has become,” said Brandy. “To see so much homelessness but not just homelessness but lack of empathy for these homeless human beings.”

Gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown:

“I speak to the people who come in in the morning, damp, shivering cold but still smiling to greet me good morning, although their morning has been anything but good,” said Woonsocket resident Jessica Jones, who works with homeless people. “The smile they flash trying to hide the pain, the fear, the worry, suffered night after night calling a sleeping bag comfort and under a bridge or a park home.”

“I’m asking the city to dig as deeply as possible into your hearts,” said Alex Kithes, wrapping things up. “Listen to your community and add housing health to the budget.

As the rally ended, the trucks departed.

Here’s the relevant video from the Woonsocket City Council meeting:

Here’s a letter Woonsocket City Councilmember James Cournoyer sent to Providence Journal reporter Antonia Noori Farzan in response to their coverage of the City Council hearing. Cournoyer sent this letter to UpriseRI because, in his words, it “pretty much applies to you as well.” This piece is the first time UpriseRI has covered the issue.

Dear Ms. Farzan,

Your front page article addressing the City of Woonsocket’s use of ARPA funds, complete with red-herring / sensational headlines, is Exhibit A as to why the public holds the press in such low esteem.

Almost your entire article was based on misinformed nonsense peddled on Twitter by a vocal minority who are desperately trying to be relevant in an effort to enhance their political aspirations, chief among them being Alex Kithes who served one very unproductive year on the City Council before the voters kicked him to the curb like yesterday’s trash when he stood for reelection.

Your article failed to address the fact that the City of Woonsocket is already a leader in the state with respect to providing “affordable” housing units, along with all the attendant costs that come with that.

Moreover, your article failed to report that the City just recently provided Community Care Alliance with approximately $1 million to address homelessness and shelter issues, of which they still have more than $250,000 that they have not yet spent. Additionally, the State just announced $5 million to be allocated for shelters, of which two entities in Woonsocket will be receiving allotments.

Lastly, as noted at last night’s Council meeting (that’s where City business is conducted, not on Twitter), their is NO funding for “ergonomic chairs”. Rather, that funding is to provide an updated Council dais that is in the shape of a horse-shoe so that the Council can actually see one another when they conduct their meetings (like most government bodies have), along with improvements to a conference room. We already have perfectly fine chairs – but don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story / headline, right?

In fact, the City of Woonsocket provides considerable support for the homeless. Indeed, we had a gentleman speak last night that came all the way from Jersey City, New Jersey to avail himself to the homeless services offered by Woonsocket.

I understand that there are people in the State that would be quite happy if the City of Woonsocket took care of all the needs of all the needy people in the the State – but alas, there are limits to our generosity.

I would suggest a better headline would have been “It’s time for other communities to step up and follow Woonsocket’s lead and start helping the needy in a more meaningful way”. But that’s not quite as fun as suggesting that the City is squandering funds on “ergonomic chairs”. And you wonder why the Projo is dying on the vine.

Respectfully,

James Cournoyer
Woonsocket City Council

Did you enjoy this article?


More Civil Rights Coverage