Brenda Lynn Leone thinks that new leadership is needed to take Johnston to greater heights, and as she believes more women are needed in government she has thrown her hat into this year’s mayoral race as an Independent.
A 1980 graduate of Johnston High School, Leone’s attended Rhode Island College along with the Association of Realtors Education. She’s a licensed Rhode Island real estate broker and has been for more than 25 years. She’s now a broker associate with RE/MAX Flagship. She’s lived in Johnston her entire life, and this is her first time running for office.
While funding most of her campaign herself and working full time, Leone said that her passion for serving as an elected official began at a young age. She believes that she will be receptive to constituent requests and will serve as an advocate for taxpayers.
“Since I was a young child, attending political rallies and outings with my grandmother, it was always my hope that one day I would run for office in town. Johnston has always been a town made up of wonderful people, but over the past couple of years this administration has lost touch with the residents, often involved in personal attacks and lawsuits,” she said. “When elected, I will open my door to all residents regardless of political affiliation and work to resolve all conflicts. In order to sustain a successful government, the administration must work hand in hand with its citizens.”
When it comes to the town’s municipal departments, if elected, she said she would go through an assessment phase and make changes where she feels they are necessary.
“I will assemble a transition team consisting of three to five people, comprised of business and community leaders from both Johnston and the surrounding communities. They will thoroughly interview all department heads and evaluate everyone individually, said Leone. “We will also advertise all positions. Ultimately, the best candidates will be put in place.”
With a town and school budget already in place until June 2019, Leone believes that her first months in office would enable her to do a total fiscal evaluation of the town and its departments Leone said that there will be an automatic increase to the budget because of contractual obligations. When it comes to an increase in the school’s budget, she feels that “additional money doesn’t always ensure better performance by students and teachers as well as improved test scores.”
“Sadly, year in and year out, our school system is rated in the bottom one-third of the Rhode Island rankings. The town of Johnston has one of the highest percentages of students attending private schools,” said Leone, adding that many parents make great sacrifices to give their children the best opportunity to succeed. “Looking at our surrounding communities, Scituate, Smithfield, Cranston and North Providence, they are all vastly outperforming our schools. In that regard, we are certainly overtaxed.”
While Leone feels that, in spite of the recent developments that have taken place in town, the commercial tax base is still much lower than it should be. She said she had steps she would take to place Johnston on a firmer financial footing.
“I would begin by bringing back the Johnston Financial Review Commission that existed under both former mayors Perrotta and Macera. The commission was made up of three financial professionals that worked closely with the finance director in an oversee capacity,” said Leone. “There can never be enough checks and balances. One of the first tasks I would give them is to address the large unfunded pension liability with the Police and Fire Departments. Percentage wise Johnston has one of the highest in the state.”
Leone said that the administration deserves “a failing grade” for the way it has handled pension contributions and other legacy costs. She said that she didn’t have enough information to discuss any existing contracts, adding that she and others acting on her behalf have been unable to obtain information from the administration regarding contracts.
In addition to addressing legacy costs, Leone said she would have the commission examine the “out of control legal fees that have plagued this administration.”
“The town has had and continues to have numerous legal battles with developers, former elected officials and business owners, to name a few, where legal fees have mounted up when in many cases they could have easily been settled,” said Leone.
When it comes to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, Leone stated that it was important to recognize that the next mayor would be responsible for negotiating a contract.
“Neither the town of Johnston nor Resource Recovery are going anywhere anytime soon. There is not another community that would willingly host it,” said Leone. “Therefore, we need to get our fair share as host community as well as tax relief for the residents that live closest to the landfill.”
Addressing the health of the town’s main streets, Hartford and Atwood Avenues, and the possibility of additional commercial development, Leone believes that there are better opportunities available and that business owners need to be held accountable for their properties.
“Unfortunately, Atwood Avenue has always been and continues to consist of fast food restaurants, strip malls and related businesses. Some of these malls are in disrepair and need a major facelift. As a real estate professional, I know these strip malls are present in every city and town because they are easy and quick cash for the owners of these properties,” said Leone. “While we can’t make them go away, we can hold the property owners to higher standards to make these properties more aesthetically pleasing.”
Leone stated that the area of Hartford Avenue from Atwood Avenue heading to Providence “is the worst area and the largest eyesore in the town,” and that companies such as BJ’s, McDonald’s and Knight’s Liquor have moved from that area for other parts of the town, leaving that section “lifeless.”
“Because that area is so close to Providence, I would like to work with some state agencies to develop that area into more of a multicultural area that would consist of restaurants and stores,” she said.
In favor of additional commercial development on Hartford Avenue where sewer and water lines have recently been installed, Leone said that she didn’t want to see another “mish mash development.”
“Before any investment takes place, some of the existing businesses and structures need to be addressed. There is a motel located right in the middle of that stretch that serves as a haven for drugs and prostitution,” said Leone. “There are also some industrial structures that need to be relocated to industrial areas.”
Leone believes that, throughout the town, there are numerous industrial businesses that are located in commercial areas and possibly in residential areas. She feels that there should be designated areas for industrial businesses and that there should be no exceptions.
Leone also felt that recent arrangements between the town and corporations, including payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements, have not been fair or equitable to the town.
“I believe all privately owned businesses should pay their fair share of taxes and let our town decide how the money should be allocated. It is a bad precedent that has been initiated by this administration,” said Leone. “Essentially, we are allowing the businesses to determine how this money is spent.”
While she in favor of a “line item in the budget” that addresses road, bridge and dam repairs, Leone said that the areas to be addressed should be determined by the public works department, in conjunction with the town engineer and the police and fire departments, and not by councilperson requests.
When it comes to involving residents in the decision-making process in Johnston, Leone said, “I will be available and have my department heads available to meet with the residents after hours if necessary. Additionally, I will urge the town council to be more user-friendly and allow constituents a greater opportunity to voice their concerns in a non-hostile environment.”
Should a person or company come to the town with a proposal to build a new piece of public infrastructure, such as a new highway ramp, road or bridge, she would evaluate that project to see if it was worth implementing.
“I would involve members such as the town planner and building inspector of my administration to be involved in the discussion from the initial presentation and facilitate their meetings with zoning and planning,” said Leone. “We have this process in place, this administration often works in reverse and instructs Planning and Zoning on what will take place.”
Going forward, Leone believes that the most pressing issue in Johnston is restoring confidence in government. She cited a March 12, 2012 Providence Journal article quoting Mayor Joseph Polisena as saying, “If you can’t get your agenda done in eight years then you’re really kind of spinning your wheels.”
“Many residents with whom I’ve met and spoken to express concern that this administration is threatening and unapproachable. People want a government that will listen to their concerns and address their needs,” she said. “I would hope that Johnston residents vote for me because they truly believe I am the right person to serve as their mayor and will restore respect, dignity and integrity to the Johnston Mayor’s office.”