The following collection features some of the top stories in Johnston from this past year. They can all be found and read in full at johnstonsunrise.net.
Polisena declines to join evergreen lawsuit
Despite protesting the bill from its inception, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena declined to join the lawsuit brought by 16 Rhode Island cities and towns against the state’s contract continuations bill.
Though Polisena has preferred to call it “lifetime contract” legislation, the law extends wages and benefits for municipal workers and teachers while negotiations for a new deal are ongoing. Local leaders, including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, held a joint press conference in November to announce the legal action, but Polisena was nowhere to be found.
In an interview with the Sun Rise, Polisena would go on to say that a victory for the group would mean a win for everyone. He would also take issue with the resolutions some towns approved opposing the town’s sale of water to Invenergy for the proposed Burrillville Power Plant, plans which died before the state Energy Facilities Siting Board.
He said the decision to remain absent from the lawsuit was “nothing personal.”
“It’s not payback,” Polisena said. “Let them lead the fight, I’ve always led the fight. I’ve always led the fight when it comes to my taxpayers. It’s not payback, it’s not spite. I’m disappointed we had all those resolutions against us for selling water. Let them expend their dollars and we’ll just sit back, just like they were the beneficiary of no more paying for streetlights.”
Polisena also noted that other municipalities took advantage of Johnston’s December 2018 settlement with National Grid, after which cities and towns would no longer have to pay for electricity for streetlights along state roads.
“When we fought for the issue of the streetlights, we did it on our own and we did what we had to do, which is fine,” Polisena said. “We did an out-of-court settlement where we paid what we owed them but we never have to pay for state streetlights again. That took us seven years. We were very successful and by us being successful the other cities and towns reaped the benefits of me and my community taking on National Grid.”
Polisena’s stance was a stark change from spring, when he teased that, if the bill was signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo, “we should challenge it on the grounds that they’re taking our constitutional right away to negotiate.”
“This will definitely, positively, absolutely handcuff the cities and towns and cause tax increases,” Polisena said in a May 9 story. “By them saying, we want ‘healthcare A’ … it’s cost me $300,000 more to pay for ‘healthcare A,’ when they could’ve been on ‘healthcare B.’ I could’ve saved money. Then I’ve got to pay for things like mediation for the lawyer, for our lawyer. Then it’s arbitration for the lawyer. Then, if I don’t like what the arbitrator does, I’ll take it to Superior Court.”
Brown is the new blue
Brown Avenue Elementary School made history this September, accomplishing a feat last seen in Johnston well before any of its current students were even born.
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon Schools Program announced Sept. 26 that Brown Avenue would receive its eponymous honor, the first time a Johnston school has taken it home since St. Rocco School in 1993-94.
Principal Helina Dlugon and Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo would later travel to Washington D.C. to accept the Blue Ribbon.
“It’s significant,” DiLullo said of the National Blue Ribbon Award in October. “The importance of it all speaks to the leadership at Brown Avenue School, Miss Dlugon, along with her staff, the families and the students, obviously, because that school is a community that’s focused on student learning. When that happens, this is the outcome. You get recognized for the achievements across the board, and that really has a lot to do with the stability of the school and the leadership of that school.”
Brown Avenue was one of only three Rhode Island schools named to the list, along with Ashaway Elementary School and Flora S. Curtis Memorial School in Pawtucket. When asked if that positions Brown Avenue as a top-three elementary school in the state, DiLullo interjected, “We’d like to think the top one.”
Dlugon, who has helmed Brown Avenue for 18 years, told the Sun Rise that Brown Avenue sets itself apart from other schools through its efforts of working “really hard at putting the child first.”
“You’re able to see what the positive things are and what needs to be tweaked and moving on and recognizing that things need to change and making those changes happen,” Dlugon said. “Sometimes they’re not easy, but we move forward and meet the challenges … So keeping up with the latest information about a child’s learning development, the latest teaching styles, techniques and looking at the whole child, not just one aspect.”
Marinelli adds Bronze de Fluery Medal to distinguished career
First Sgt. Felix Marinelli Jr. didn’t want a long story published about his myriad accomplishments, but that proved impossible.
Johnston native Marinelli was honored with the Bronze de Fleury Medal from the 861st Engineer Company, noting that he “brought his knowledge as a former marine Infantryman to a critical fight.”
Marinelli served four years in the Marine Corps before an honorable discharge in 1983 brought him to the New England Institute of Technology, where he finished his degree.
He admitted, though, that he “missed the camaraderie” of the armed forces, and he enlisted in the Rhode Island Army National Guard in 1994.
“I missed the military in general, and I was looking around for units,” he told the Sun Rise earlier this year. “The Marine Corps didn’t have anything I wanted, so I decided to join the Army, the engineering company. I’ve been there since ’95 until today, I’m still in. I’m the first sergeant for them. It’s been a long road, a lot of challenges, but we have a really good unit.”
Since then, he was involved in more than 200 combat missions during his deployment to Ar-Ramadi, Iraq, as an acting platoon sergeant in 2006. He received a Bronze Star for his efforts, and was also awarded a Combat Action Badge when an IED struck his patrol.
He was also part of the response team fighting the “100-Year Flood” in 2010, relieving the inundation seen on Interstate 95. He’s also worked during floods in West Virginia, serving those affected before the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, could arrive.
While he didn’t explore his military experiences too much, Marinelli thanked those closest to him for their unending support.
“You know you’ve done a few things right when you receive a medal like this, and one of the things, too, you don’t do it alone,” Marinelli said, referencing some remarks he gave at the de Fleury ceremony in September. “If you don’t have the support of the people under you and above you, you just don’t reach this point. I’m very happy with that, you know. I wouldn’t be here standing before you – this is what I read – if I didn’t have the love and support from my family and friends. It makes all the difference in the world. No one gets there alone.”
Johnston’s Todisco retires after six decades of nursing
Johnston’s Giovanna “Jenny” Todisco said a bittersweet goodbye this summer to the profession she loved for nearly six decades.
Todisco was only 19 years old when she started working in the Care New England system, taking a job right out of Our Lady of Fatima Hospital School in 1960. She told the Sun Rise during an interview on her last day that she started volunteering at Women & Infants during her days at Mount Pleasant High School.
The supervisor of nurses at the time saw her working and told her, “When you get out of nursing school and graduate, you will have a job.” It became more than just a job for Todisco, though.
She would come to work every day and see friends, but also her daughter, niece and daughter-in-law – all of whom also work at the hospital. She said she always brought her daughter coffee in the mornings, too.
“[My coworkers] were a little shocked because I said I’m not going to leave until I leave feet first,” Todisco said with a laugh. “You want to stay here with the girls and work, but you have to retire some day. So today’s the day.”
She loved her patients, too, and said they have made her career all the more memorable.
“I always enjoyed the patients,” Todisco said in the Aug. 1 article. “Some patients are a little difficult, but I enjoy taking care of them. I feel like I’m giving them hope and I feel like I get close to my patients. I use my emotions to try to calm them down. It’s the patients that are really special. I enjoy being close to my patients.”
Todisco said that she already had trips planned for her retirement, and said whoever fills her shoes should “be happy and try to do the best you can.”
““I’m going to go on trips with the girls that work here,” Todisco said. “We’re planning a cruise next year. We’re very close knit, so we go out with each other and do things like that.”
Johnston turns the tide on Belfield Drive flooding
Johnston Municipal Court was packed with residents, politicians and media in June when the town announced, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a plan to finally alleviate the flooding issues on Belfield Drive.
USDA State Engineer Alan Gillespie explained during the press conference that Phase 1, which would cost more than $650,000, would cover the removal of a hoe at 68 Belfield Drive – which was purchased as part of a floodplain easement. A purchase offer was made to another home in the area, 51 Belfield Drive, but Gillespie said the owner declined to sell.
Phase 1 was also slated to include designs to raise the roadway three to four feet.
““There’s an existing pipe that’s under the road right now, that will be evaluated during the construction to make sure that it’s stable,” Gillespie said over the summer. “The design will likely include additional stabilization for that culvert, but it’s there right now and it’s a big pipe, it’s four feet in diameter, which will allow water to go back and forth, into the pooling area.”
Phase 2, which Gillespie estimated would cost under $1 million, would provide little inconvenience as work began on the road.
“We’re moving the earth fill that was put there to make it a residential area, creating that natural flooding area so the water can spread out instead of staging up,” he said. “When you spread it out, instead of staging up, that has an overall net benefit.”
Gillespie said no plans were made as of yet to handle the crushed culvert, which sits in the woods on Hartford Avenue. Polisena said the owner of the land where the culvert rests is still a mystery, and Natural Resources Conservation Service State Conservationist Phou Vongkhamdy said the Environmental Protection Agency would have to be consulted because the area is a brownfield.
“Allegedly, the culvert has been collapsed because of all the debris that has been thrown in there,” Polisena said. “It first reared its ugly head in 2010 with the historic floods, and then we thought we were away from that for another 100 years, but obviously that didn’t happen. Last year, when we got historic rainfall again, it seemed to fill up again.”
A living memorial to ‘passion personified’
When Johnston High School music department director Ron Lamoureux, choral director Matt Gingras and music teacher Oliver Reid wanted to honor the memory of student Rachel Carson, planting a red maple tree was the perfect tribute.
Carson, who passed away in February 2018, was named for the famed environmentalist. Lamoureux said she was “really active in outdoors,” and that she intended on majoring in environmental science at the University of Maine.
“They have planted a bunch of trees in a lot of different places in her honor, so I’m glad we got this one here,” Lamoureux said this spring. “I just kind of wish it was over here so we could look at it.”
Carson looked to master every task to which she committed herself. She achieved All-State honors as a musician going to back to middle school, and she played bass clarinet in the JHS band to go with the piano classes she took with Gingras. She also participated in a cappella.
“The word ‘mediocre’ didn’t exist in her vocabulary,” Reid said. “If she was going to bother to do it, she was going to do it, and you had better be prepared to do it with her as a teacher.”
The school held a dedication ceremony for the tree, which Carson’s family also attended. Her father, pastor Kevin Carson, said he hoped the red maple would “grow tall and strong in her memory.”
“Rachel loved the forest and dreamed of becoming a wildlife ecologist to study forest ecosystems and help protect them, so over the last 16 months, we have donated to several organizations to plant trees in her memory,” he said. “But this one is very special. Planting a tree in her memory at the school she loves so dearly seems so appropriate, and I want to thank everyone who made it possible.”
Carson’s devotion to what she loved most went on to inspire a scholarship named in her memory, with the central question asking applicants how passion drives them.
“You think you know what passion is, but when it’s just something you do, I think that’s what passion is,” Gingras said. “It’s just something that becomes part of what you do and you don’t question doing it, you just do it. And that’s kind of how she was.”
St. Brigid’s closes its doors
It was the end of an era for a staple of Johnston’s religious community this summer.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence announced on May 13 that St. Brigid Church would close permanently on July 1. Johnston Senior Center assistant director Millie Santilli led the charge to raise money for the ailing, century-old church, but the diocese said that “declining mass attendance and ongoing maintenance costs” ultimately brought about closure.
“St. Brigid’s was a small, little parish, and it’s always been just a neighborhood parish and a poor parish,” Santilli, who was a parishioner at St. Brigid’s for five decades, said. “So, our efforts to want to keep it going and keep it afloat, you know, was really important to us … It was important to us to do as much as we could.”
Santilli, who met and married her husband at St. Brigid as well, said the news was “very sad.” It united churchgoers from three different municipalities – Johnston, Cranston and Providence – and created a family between them.
“Losing that church, I feel bad for the people that are the parishioners that go to that church,” Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena said after the closure was announced. “It’s going to be difficult, I’m sure for them, to get used to going to another church. I’m hoping that they don’t lose those people, saying, ‘You know what, I’m just not going to bother anymore.’ I don’t want to see that happen. It’s a sign of the times. People say change happens all the time, but I don’t think this change is for good.”
Invenergy deal struck down in ‘disappointing’ decision
The town of Johnston’s 20-year, $18 million deal with Chicago-based Invenergy was rendered null and void after a decision from the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board in June struck down the proposed Burrillville Power Plant.
Polisena was displeased with the decision – calling it a “setback for energy” – which would no longer allow for Johnston to truck two to three 8,000-gallon water tankers daily to the potential 1,000-megawatt Clean River Energy Center.
The town enjoyed a victory in April when Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Michael A. Silverstein ruled the town had a right to sell its water because it fits an “ordinary municipal water supply purpose.”
Polisena railed against “outsiders” who “basically control the narrative” for bringing on the dissolution of the deal.
“I believe that the environmentalists put a lot of pressure and focused on the community of Burrillville,” Polisena said. ‘I think the politicians were afraid to speak up, but I think if they were to explain how much money it would’ve been, how much money the town would’ve received, I think it would’ve been a different story. But I don’t know, I’m second-guessing.”
Polisena said he told Invenergy Senior Vice President Michael Blazer the day the vote was expected that, if the plant were located in Johnston, it would already be running. He later noted that a gas line running through the 156-acre parcel of land on Route 6, which Polisena thought would be a suitable location, was not large enough for the facility.
“I visualized them – and maybe it was a dream – that they could have come on Route 6,” Polisena said. “You know how big that would’ve been for us? Huge. I would say if that came to Johnston at $200 million-plus, with an escalator clause – which I would have put on there – I don’t think there would have ever been a tax raise in this town.”
After sudden passing, Mele’s memory honored with library dedication
Former Johnston School Committee chairwoman Janice Mele’s unexpected passing on April 16 brought “profound sadness” to the community, as Superintendent of Schools Bernard DiLullo put it.
DiLullo and Assistant Superintendent Julie-anne Zarrella both said they were in shock when they heard the news, and tributes poured in from her colleagues on the School Committee and around the town. District 5 committee member Susan Mansolillo called Mele an “absolutely wonderful woman,” while first-term District 2 committee member Dawn Aliosio said Mele welcomed her “with open arms and [wanted] you to feel comfortable” when Aliosio joined the board.
“She’s an icon, and quite frankly they don’t make elected officials like Janice Mele any more,” Polisena said. “She’s going to be sorely missed.”
District 4 committee member Joseph Rotella said her death was devastating, adding that they’ve talked almost three times a day since 2008. District 1 member and current chairman Robert LaFazia struggled to speak during the first School Committee meeting without Mele, where her seat was left vacant with a flower and her nameplate.
“I thank my colleagues for their support this evening. It’s a tough position to take over … It’s going to be almost impossible to fill her shoes,” said a visibly emotional LaFazia. “As far as I’m concerned, she always will be chair for this committee.”
It came just one day after the Town Council approved a resolution, led by Vice President Joseph Polisena Jr., to rename the Johnston High School library in Mele’s memory.
The unveiling was held earlier this month, with Mele’s daughters Alicia Mele Bendza and Amanda Mele and her grandson Landon attending the ceremony.
“We all truly love what she did for all and what she stood for; a woman with strong uncompromising integrity,” Polisena said during the dedication. “I’m sure that Janice and Jay are looking down upon us, smiling … let me say Janice, we love you and we miss you dearly.”
Eighth-grader Landon shared some words about Mele, whom he called “Mama,” and said he thinks of her every day at St. Thomas Regional School in North Providence, the same institution where Mele used to teach.
“I miss her all the time!” Landon said. “I used to go everywhere with her and I miss that. Even when I’m at school, I think about her and miss seeing her here.”
LaFazia becomes first girl to reach Pinewood Derby Regionals
Johnston 7-year-old Ali LaFazia made history this year when she became the first and only girl to participate in the Pinewood Derby Regionals for the Boy Scouts of America’s Narragansett Council.
Ali’s mother, Sheri, told the Sun Rise in March that Ali officially joined the Boy Scout program last year, but she fit in immediately. While Ali didn’t place at the event, which took place in March at St Rocco’s Church in Johnston, she did earn a Judge’s Choice trophy for design.
“Thank you, Ali, for inspiring our cubs,” Mark DaPonte, a leader with Troop and Pack 20 in Johnston, wrote in an email to the Sun Rise at the time. “We can’t wait to see what she does next year!”
“It’s like a big party, it really is,” Sheri said. “They’re getting educated in many different areas. It’s absolutely wonderful … what was most amazing about the Pinewood Derby was that kids who weren’t even in the competition from her troop came out to support her.”
Ali is also a noted volunteer, having helped wrap gifts at the Johnston Senior Center and placed flags to honor veterans’ memories at the Highland Memorial Park Cemetery as part of her work with the Scouts.
When Sheri asked Ali what she enjoyed most about the group, she said hiking, fishing and camping – an answer far from out of the ordinary for the young, adventurous pioneer.
“They’ve been great,” Sheri said of the Scouts. “They’ve just embraced her. They encourage her, give her guidance, they’re her cheerleaders … This has been an all-boys club for a long time, but to be honest, they have so much fun together.”