Should the Next Mayor be the Last Mayor for Central Falls?
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
A former Mayor, a former Police Chief and a popular young Councilman have thrown their hats in the ring as candidates hoping to succeed Charles Moreau as Mayor of Central Falls, the three men announced Monday.
Moreau, who kept his title but lost control of the city when a state receiver was appointed over two years ago, resigned last week after agreeing to plead guilty to corruption charges stemming from an incident in which he received personal benefits in exchange for handing out a lucrative city contract.
Now Thomas Lazieh, a former three-term Mayor, Joseph Moran III, a Moreau ally and former Police Chief and Councilman James Diossa are all seeking to lead the embattled city as it emerges from bankruptcy.
But in a city with a 13.2 percent unemployment rate, a depleted tax base and a struggling school system, some say the next Mayor’s top priority needs to be to find a way to merge with neighboring communities, a strategy the Governor’s office has already endorsed by forming a task force to look into ways the city can share services with Pawtucket and East Providence.
“The city needs to incrementally combine forces with its neighbors,” said former State Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders, who was replaced as the city’s state-appointed receiver by John F. McJennett III in June. “It’s in everyone’s interest to consolidate, to regionalize, to share services.”
Flanders helped oversee the city’s bankruptcy filing in August 2011 after the city was unable to achieve significant concessions from its unions and retirees. As a result, some retirees had their pensions slashed by over 50 percent, new union contracts were negotiated and taxes will increase by 20 percent over the next five years.
But Flanders maintains that the bankruptcy also breathes new life into the city, which will now have a balanced budget over the next five years. Flanders said he is against the city attempting to merge with another community “in one fell swoop,” but suggested finding a way to work with other communities could benefit all involved. It will also result in some job loss, Flanders admitted.
“There is no question that one of the savings to be had is laying off people,” Flanders said. “But many of those savings can come at the top with the higher salaries.”
“Any Moron Can Cut Jobs”
But Moran said the last thing Central Falls needs is more residents on the unemployment line. The former chief, who failed to unseat State Senator Elizabeth Crowley in last week’s Democratic primary, said he believes the city needs to take an “outside the box approach” to turning its fortunes around.
“Any moron can go and cut jobs,” he said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a judge to do that.”
Moran, who was the only one of three announced candidates to return a call in time for publication Monday, said he believes the city can become more attractive if it is “kept clean and kept safe.”
“Right now it’s not either of those things,” he added.
According to University of Rhode Island business professor Dr. Edward Mazze, the city needs a mayor with a business background in finance or accounting and who is able to work with diverse stakeholder groups.
“The individual must have a vision for the city that brings back its pride so that local residents and businesses are excited about the city's future,” Mazze said. “Good leadership skills are important. Regaining the confidence of town employees will be difficult but possible.”
Leadership Group Comes to Central Falls
Politics aside, Central Falls may get a boost in the leadership department from a statewide group that has focused its attention on the one-square mile city. Leadership Rhode Island, an organization that identifies and brings together the state’s top leaders from every sector, has made the city a central focus of its work over the last year.
Now Mike Ritz, the organization’s executive director, says a spinoff group called Leadership Central Falls will launch next month.
“Leadership Central Falls is a response to the need for sustainability of some of the good work that has begun during this municipal turnaround,” Ritz said. “The six-month course will explore ways to increase the community's potential for long-lasting success and empower residents to take action through our wider statewide network.”
Ritz said members of Leadership RI were informed early on that completely merging Central Falls with another city or town was probably impossible, but noted that the “exploration and possibilities” that come from shared service could be desirable for all communities.
The nonpartisan group isn’t planning to pick sides in the Mayor’s race (note: Diossa is a member of the current Leadership RI class), but Ritz said the city’s next leader must recognize the “great assets within the community and have the ability to strategically leverage those assets to benefit the whole through inspiring people within and outside of Central Falls to work together.”
“May the best visionary candidate who is honest, intelligent, capable, empathetic, far-reaching, passionate, creative, and inspiring win the election,” Ritz said.
Terrible to Go Back
Mazze agreed with Ritz, noting that even with a smaller tax base, the city can survive if it has the right leadership. Mazze said he too considers it impossible for the city to simply become a part of Pawtucket or Lincoln because those communities “have their own problems.”
Mazze said Central Falls can recover if it has better management and takes a more realistic approach to the way it does business.
“This is an opportunity for Central Falls to show that good things can happen after a bankruptcy with the right leadership,” he said. “It would be terrible to go back to a model of poor leadership, too much politics, little transparency and no financial, accounting and management controls in place.”