Innovation Ecosystem

Is it a new dawn, a new day in Woonsocket?

The abrupt resignation of Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt may not have resolved legal issues surrounding the Mayor’s questionable behavior and her stealth land deal

Photo by Richard Asinof, file photo

Karen Rathbun, vice president of administrative services at Community Care Alliance in Woonsocket, points to a hole in the wall with insulation pouring out, caused by water damage from a leak in the roof at the state-owned building, which was identified in 2017 but never repaired by the R.I. Department of Administration, leading to unhealthy conditions, including black mold, forcing the agency to move to temporary offices.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/13/23
The revelations regarding the stealth land deal pursued by former Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt raises questions about the Mayor’s potential involvement in the eviction of a community agency from the state-owned facility at 181 Cumberland St. and the subsequent sale of the building and property to the city.
What is the return on investment in providing wrap-around services for residents of Rhode Island who have found themselves facing eviction from their apartments? How important is it to provide a place to live for families with children who lack shelter? How many adult children in their twenties are living at home with their parents because of an inability to find an affordable place to live? What kind of investment can CVS make in Woonsocket to create shelter for those city residents who lack a place to live?
It is easy to feel that the flow of information directed at you, promoting products and services promising all kinds of benefits, is just too much to take in. There are two seemingly contradictory flows – the inability for your voice to be heard, and the incessant noise that dominates the airwaves. As a result, the tendency is to tune out the news – which, of course, makes you more vulnerable to those who practice the art of spreading fear, mayhem, and malarkey into our lives.
For those facing financial difficulty, particularly for those who are now old and living alone, the biggest hurdle is often overcoming a sense of shame in asking for help. Imagine if at Thanksgiving this year, you prepared a meal for someone who has no place to go. What would you make? What recipe would you follow? What side dish would you consider cooking for your neighbor?

PROVIDENCE – In her 2018 book, What the Eyes Don’t See, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, Mich., recounted the story of how she found out that the kids in her community were being exposed to unhealthy levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. The lead poisoning occurred as a result of a decision to change the source for the city’s drinking water from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River, in what the state claimed was an austerity move to save money.

In the book, Dr. Hanna-Attisha recounted her own inability, at first, to see the cause of the crisis. Then, once she identified the cause of the lead poisoning of the city’s children, she found herself at the center of a growing controversy where the “government [was] poisoning its own citizens, and then lying about it,” according to Hanna-Attisha.

Here in Rhode Island, there are a number of stories revolving around “what the eyes don’t see” – the lack of affordable housing, the need to increase Medicaid rates for providers, the failure by the Governor and the Education Commissioner to account for clinical data linking asthma and childhood lead poisoning to chronic school absenteeism, and the growing disruption of the health care delivery system caused by burnout of the workforce.

To borrow a phrase attributed to Voltaire, it seems the news media lies most effectively to itself about itself – not covering the stories that it has a hard time “seeing.”

For the moment, the travails of former Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldellli-Hunt have captured the news media’s rapt attention. But there is a lot of “what the eyes don’t see” context involved with the Mayor’s resignation, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion, based on reporting during the last year.

  •           In Woonsocket, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt has been caught in a scheme to purchase 5 acres of vacant land off Mendon Road for some $1.1 million using federal funds, in a transaction that was never approved by the City Council, according to reporting by WPRI’s Eli Sherman.

In her initial interview with Sherman, before she assumed a pose of radio silence, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt had pitched the land transaction – which had been done without City Council approval as was required by law – as an example of how she was attempting to develop affordable housing within the city.

“This is exactly what the governor, the speaker and the Senate president are pushing,” Mayor Baldelli-Hunt told WPRI’s Eli Sherman in an interview. “This is exactly what HUD is pushing.”

But Mayor Baldelli-Hunt’s characterization of the stealth land sale – as something that the Gov. Dan McKee, Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio were pushing” – seemed more like an attempt to put words into the political leaders’ mouths after being caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

At last word, the land deal has been rescinded, the money returned, and the Mayor has resigned.

But, an important follow-up question for reporters to ask of the Governor, the Speaker and the Senate President:  “Is this kind of secret land deal something that you are pushing for?”

In the past few weeks, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt’s alleged erratic behavior had apparently forced members of the Woonsocket City Council, once strong supporters of the Mayor, as noted by Valley Breeze Editor Ethan Shorey, to seek her resignation.

  •            Six weeks ago, on Friday afternoon, Sept. 29, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt displayed what appeared to be questionable judgment, inviting Gov. Dan McKee and Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor to go on a tour of three homeless encampments in Woonsocket, during which arrests were made involving the possession of firearms. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To tell the truth.”]

The presence of firearms had allegedly been known by Woonsocket police and Mayor Baldelli-Hunt for a week before the tour took place, according to details uncovered in the police reports. Yet neither the Governor nor the Housing Secretary had been informed about the potential presence of guns at the homeless encampments.

The ongoing relationships between Woonsocket Mayor Baldelli-Hunt and the state’s elected leaders – including the Governor, the Senate President, and the Speaker – are worth being pursued by the news media, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

In particular, ConvergenceRI would urge the news media to ask questions about the saga behind the eviction of Community Care Alliance from the state-owned property at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket – and the property’s subsequent purchase by the City of Woonsocket for some $730,000.

Unwinding the story is as complicated as trying to decipher the ongoing plot line of a long-running TV soap opera, filled with complex and complicated swerves and twists. To help push that investigation along, here is a timeline that reporters can follow.

  •      On Nov. 18, 2022, Kate Breslin Harden, Esq., chief of the Legal Division of BHDDH, sent an eviction letter to Benedict Lessing, Jr, the president and CEO of Community Care Alliance, ordering them to vacate the premises at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket as of March 17, 2023.

As detailed in the March 9, 2020, story, “Is the state guilty of neglect with its community assets in Woonsocket?” for more than five years’ time before the eviction notice was sent, the Community Care Alliance had been asking the R.I. Department of Administration and the state Division of Capital Management and Maintenance [DCAMM] to make repairs to the state-owned building, as a result of water damage caused to the building’s roof in 2017. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story.]

  •      On Dec. 5, 2022, ConvergenceRI published the story, “When the state evicts community agencies: Despite a crisis in homelessness and a desperate need for expanded mental health services, the state evicted a community agency.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story.] 
  •      On Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, a meeting was held in the fourth floor DOA conference room, at the behest of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, apparently in response to issues raised in the Dec. 5 edition of ConvergenceRI regarding the eviction of the Community Care Alliance.

In attendance at that meeting were: Gov. McKee’s  chief of staff Tony Afonso; R.I. Department of Administration Director Jim Thorsen; Jake Bissaillon [then chief of staff to R.I. Senate President Ruggerio and now a newly elected State Senator]; Christopher Farrell, a senior advisor to Gov. McKee; and David Patten, director of DCAMM. Also reported to be in attendance were Sen. Melissa Murray, vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Benedict Lessing, president and CEO of Community Care Alliance.

Following the meeting, Patten had sent out an email to the attendees with a PDF attachment of a report dated Feb. 17, 2019, based on a site visit conducted three years earlier, on Nov. 18, 2016, by EMG Engineering, an engineering firm headquartered in Ownings Mills, Maryland, labeled as a “Facility Condition Assessment.”

Translated, the report was out-of-date, based on a site visit conducted in 2016 and not written up until three years later.

That out-of-date report projected that over a 10-year period, through 2029, the building would require approximately $1.2 million in capital needs improvement. The out-of-date report had apparently been used to back up the position of DOA and DCAMM that the community agency should be evicted and that the state-owned building should be sold, which it was, on March 15, 2023, at auction, for $730,000. But we are getting ahead of the timeline.

  •           On Jan. 4, 2023, less than 24 hours after the inauguration of Gov. Dan McKee, Woonsocket Mayor Baldelli-Hunt launched a well-publicized eviction of her own of residents at a homeless encampment in Woonsocket.

As ConvergenceRI reported, the move seemed to seek to blame the victims – and the community agencies. “The dismantling of the homeless encampment in Woonsocket on Jan. 4 seemed to bring the controversy [around homelessness] to a head.

As reporter Katie Mulvaney reported in her Jan. 4, 2023, story for The Providence Journal, interviewing Steven D’Agostino, the director of the Woonsocket Department of Public Works, D’Agostino took responsibility for ordering the dismantlement of the homeless encampment earlier that day. D’Agostino observed that there are several nonprofits operating in the city. “Maybe they should be doing better [emphasis added].

In ConvergenceRI’s opinion, D’Agostino’s observations appeared to echo the line of attack adopted by the McKee administration – blaming the homeless and blaming the agencies attempting to provide services for not doing a better job.

Benedict Lessing, Jr., president and CEO of the Community Care Alliance, had countered D’Agostino’s claims in an email to Mulvaney: “The state of Rhode Island is experiencing a housing and homeless emergency; we have yet to come to grips with this fact. …Bulldozing homeless encampments is not a solution, it only creates additional trauma. Without sufficient local shelter and supportive services, this approach does nothing other than to disperse people to other nearby locations.” [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

  •           Fast forward to March 10, 2023, when DOA Director Jim Thorsen and DCAMM Director David Patten took an ill-fated trip to Philadelphia.

The alleged bad behavior by the two top McKee administration officials during a trip to evaluate Scout and its $57 million plans to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory, behavior that the McKee administration kept from public view for three months until a ruling by R.I. Attorney General made the contents of a email from Scout public.

  •           At a March 20, 2023, legislative hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Thorsen testified about his rationale behind the eviction of the Community Care Alliance.

Both Thorsen and Patten have now departed from their state government jobs, but not before a legislative hearing. During his testimony, Thorsen said that the biggest problem facing the behavioral health infrastructure in Rhode Island was the failure by community agencies to pay rent at state-owned facilities, which Sen. Murray then debunked, saying that it did not apply to the Community Care Alliance. Sen. Murray also challenged Thorsen on his characterization of what had happened regarding 181 Cumberland St. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A culture war on behavioral health.”]

The City of Woonsocket subsequently purchased the building for $730,000, under the state law giving the municipality the right of first refusal, after Thorsen made a finding about the building at 181 Cumberland St., saying that it was found “to be surplus to [the state’s] needs,” in a letter dated April 6, 2023, allowing the city to purchase the property. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Waiting for a rebirth of housing, hope, and wonder.”]

There is much more that could be added to the timeline – one that links the stealth land deal conducted by former Mayor Baldelli-Hunt and the actual sale of the property at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket to the city, which was approved by the Woonsocket City Council. But, at least, this provides a good start. Perhaps Attorney General Peter Neronha might want to ask some questions about the eviction at 181 Cumberland St. and the subsequent sale of the property to the City of Woonsocket.

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