Statewide inauguration ceremonies wrapped up in Johnston Monday, with the high school stage packed with dignitaries at the local, state and federal level. It was a ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance, but even as elected officials talked about bright spots in government, congratulatory speeches touched upon the challenges that lie ahead.
“Our nation, our state and our town will continue to face difficult times,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena.
Turning to Governor Lincoln Chafee, he pleaded for a stop to cuts in state aid, as well as unfunded mandates that he says tie the hands of mayors and town administrators. He thanked the governor for understanding municipal government and supporting mayors.
“When we succeed, the state succeeds,” he said.
Despite the celebratory mood of the evening, Polisena mentioned the unfunded pension liabilities that threaten the viability of municipalities across the state.
“We have a Herculean task ahead of us,” he said. “We cannot mortgage our future. The financial future of the town depends on our decisions. It will take courage.”
Last week, Polisena reported that the town had an unfunded liability of $96 million, a number that continues to change as updated figures come in. On Monday, he said the liability is closer to $110 million.
Providing a backdrop for the evening were musicians from the Johnston High School Band, led by director Ron Lamoureux, and the school’s Select Chorus, led by director Lisa Fredrickson. Bishop Robert Evans provided the invocation and benediction, Sergeant-at-Arms Stephen Mallane led the Pledge of Allegiance and the Johnston Police Department presented the Colors.
CCRI President Ray DiPasquale, who also serves as the commissioner of higher education, was master of ceremonies for the inauguration. He and Polisena became friendly thanks to the mayor’s role as a CCRI graduate and adjunct professor.
DiPasquale heaped praise upon the mayor, as did the speakers that followed. Senator Jack Reed called Polisena “a man of many talents,” and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo said, “He’s not business as usual.”
“Mayor Polisena will not rest until he gets the best for Johnston,” added Governor Chafee.
Before administering the oath of office, the Honorable Francis Flaherty said that, unlike other politicians, Polisena has integrity and intelligence “in abundance.”
“Throughout Mayor Polisena’s long career in public service, his integrity has rarely been questioned,” Flaherty said. “I am proud to call him my friend.”
Polisena was the only dignitary to speak at length, with his 25-minute speech covering what he considers victories along his journey as mayor. He touched upon new developments in town like the fire station, soccer fields, municipal courthouse, town vehicle gas pumps, a dog park and Barnes Elementary School playground, which took place during his tenure.
He discussed the economic development happening locally, including Sims Metals Recycling, Broadrock, Job Lot, CVS, Planet Fitness and more. Although he has been criticized for the lack of activity at Stuart’s Plaza, Polisena brought it up in his inaugural speech, asking developer Jeff Saletin to stand. The mayor said a Price Rite and BankRI would be among the businesses to open in Stuart’s, a project that has stalled over several election cycles.
“The Town of Johnston, I think, has become a role model for economic development in our state,” Polisena said.
He is confident that such development will continue, noting that it must be done in a way that does not impede quality of life. Polisena congratulated voters on successfully passing a $1 million open space bond that will preserve land and bring in more recreation opportunities for residents. This election was an important one for the mayor, who also advocated for passage of a $4 million road improvement bond and the institution of term limits. Starting in 2014, any mayor can only serve for two consecutive four-year terms, for a total of eight years. That restriction would not apply to Polisena until that year, meaning that if he wins reelection in 2014, he can serve until 2022 at the latest.
Polisena said the achievements of late would not have been possible without his “Super Bowl team” on the Town Council and town employees, many of whom he thanked by name and asked to stand from the audience.
“I’m very proud of our accomplishments over the past six years, and I’m particularly proud of our teamwork,” he said.
The “team” sworn in included Town Council members Eileen Fuoco, Anthony Verardo, David Santilli, Robert Russo and Stephanie Manzi. On the School Committee, only Robert LaFazia and Joseph Rotella had to take their oath, as the terms are staggered, but they were joined on stage by colleagues Lorraine Iafrate, Janice Mele and Susan Mansolillo.
Also sworn in Monday were Town Clerk Vincent Baccari, Police Chief Richard Tamburini and Fire Chief Timothy McLaughlin. Michael DiChiro was appointed Municipal Court Judge and Paul DiMaio was appointed Probate Court Judge.
During the inauguration, the Town Council conducted a brief meeting, unanimously reelecting Russo as council president and Manzi as vice president.
In his remarks, 18-year Councilman Russo thanked the families of public servants for the sacrifice they make and also the staff and officials who oversee town operations.
“Johnston has persevered,” he said.
Polisena agreed and assured the audience that the town can and will overcome the challenges ahead.
“We will emerge stronger than ever,” he said. “After all, we are Rhode Islanders.”