As he enters what will be his final term in office, Mayor Joseph Polisena may be viewed as a “lame duck.”
He rejects that traditional political term, however, favoring a far different, and more colorful, description of how he wants to be seen – as a “pit bull with rabies.”
“What can I tell you, I’m no lame duck. I will continue to work as I swore I would when I took the oath of office. I’m not going to sit back,” he said during Monday night’s inaugural event at Johnston High School. “I will continue to fight each and every day and use obviously every piece of strength that I have in my body to make sure that this town is the best town, and continues to be the best town, as long as I have a pulse.”
The inauguration, held in the school’s auditorium, drew a large crowd filled with some of the state’s top political, business and community figures.
“I never grow tired of the swearing ins. I just think it’s a celebration of our democracy, of this imperfect journey that we’re on and to recognize the leaders for their work,” said Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee.
The lieutenant governor, who was re-elected to a second term in November and previously served as mayor of Cumberland, spoke highly of Polisena. He joked that he expects to someday see exit 5 off Interstate 295 renamed in the mayor’s honor.
“When I met Joe for the first time formally as a mayor, we talked about bringing municipal leaders together, and we did that,” McKee said. “You can see by the number of mayors that are here tonight we worked very hard together to make sure that we did the very best for our communities, and there’s no one that I’ve met that works harder than Joe for his community.”
Rhode Island Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-Dist. 4, Providence, North Providence) addressed the crowd and took the opportunity to congratulate the slate of new and returning officials, commending them for taking on the responsibility of serving their constituents.
“Seldom are you called or approached and told that you are doing a great job, so I’ll say it for you. Mayor, you did a great job,” he said. “You and the [Town] Council have done a great job over a period of time in this town. You have a lot of things going on, you have a lot of economic development going on.”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston) applauded the voters of Johnston, saying the town “sends great representatives to the House of Representatives to work on your behalf.”
“They work hard, they collaborate, and they’re relentless for Johnston,” he said.
The speaker also lauded Polisena’s accomplishments.
“He’s old-school. His word is his bond,” he said. “He works hard, he cares about his family, he cares about his home, he cares about his town, he cares about his friends and his community, and if he can help someone, he does, and if he can’t, he’ll tell you he can’t. Those are old-school values, values which should still be very important today and they are very important to me.”
The Hon. Joseph Montalbano, an associate justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court, served as the evening’s principal speaker and congratulated all of the elected officials for their accomplishments. He described Polisena as a “fierce advocate for the citizens of Johnston,” and said the mayor’s “outspokenness for his many causes was legendary.”
The Hon. Francis X. Flaherty, an associate justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, administered Polisena’s oath of office, his fifth time doing so.
Flaherty jokingly observed that the lifespan of a wild turkey is only three years, and that the town turkey, now of international fame, will probably die before Polisena’s term is up.
Flaherty also highlighted the mayor’s prior service as a state senator, his time on the Johnston Fire Department, his work as a registered nurse since 1985 and his time as a professor at the Community College of Rhode Island.
Before beginning his prepared remarks, Polisena announced that the town had decided that government employees were not getting paid due to the federal government shutdown would be granted a grace period to pay their taxes in Johnston.
“We will allow them to hold off in paying their taxes, obviously, until both sides end the nonsense, and I do mean nonsense. There will be no penalties for the third-quarter payment, and if we have to because the government is still not open, will honor them obviously for the fourth quarter payment,” he said. “It’s these special people we need to worry about, because they also need to worry about putting food on their table and paying their mortgage and rent.”
Polisena thanked dignitaries, elected officials, public service workers, union members, business leaders, his staff, and friends and family. He called the occasion a bittersweet moment, adding that it was he who pushed for the term limits that will end his time as the town’s chief executive.
Polisena also said he takes pride in the way his administration had comported itself during his tenure.
“Johnston had a stigma of corruption for many years after several elected officials and appointed officials had gone to jail, as well as several others who were under investigation for corruption,” he said. “My administration has moved forward and gotten rid of that stigma.”
Polisena remembers his first days as mayor as a “real horror story.” He described inheriting a $9-million budget deficit, crumbling infrastructure and multiple lawsuits. There were dire needs for investments such as new facilities and vehicles across town departments, he said, but no money to provide for them.
“My administration rolled up their sleeves and today that hard work has paid off,” he said. “We have accomplished so much in this great town.”
Polisena also touted his administration’s record in terms of fostering a favorable climate for businesses in town – calling Johnston a “Mecca for new businesses” – and highlighted $525,000 secured in scholarships for high school seniors over the next two decades through agreements with solar and wind farm developers.
“My administration has continually received local businesses to help and assist in making Johnston a better place to live, work, and play, saving the taxpayers thousands upon thousands of dollars,” he said, offering praise for companies such as Patriot Disposal, Hartford Paving, Citizens Bank and Southern Sky Renewable Energy.
Polisena said the town now has the best resources when it comes to fire and EMS services, including state-of-the-art equipment. He credited Police Chief Richard Tamburini and Deputy Chief Joseph Razza for their leadership in ensuring that the department became nationally accredited.
Polisena also thanked his “Super Bowl team” of Town Council members Richard DelFino III, David Santilli, Robert Russo and Robert Civetti for their service.
“To the three new council members who will be sworn in tonight, there will be times when we disagree on issues and we will debate the issues. Let me say that to debate is healthy for democracy, and whatever our differences may be, we will agree on one thing – we must do what’s best for the majority of the taxpayers and citizens of our great town,” he said.
The mayor said he looked forward to working with the Johnston School Committee to “ensure that our children get the best education possible,” reiterating his support for public schools and the Johnson school system.
Listing accomplishments of his previous five terms – including a total of $1.3 billion in new development that included FM Global, the Northwoods office park, FedEx, the rebirth of the old Stuart’s Plaza, Tasca automotive, Ocean State Job Lot, Starbucks, and many other projects – the mayor said he aims to build on those successes. He also touted the town’s new library, courthouse and fire station and the installation of LED lighting and new heating systems for all town buildings.
“I’m very excited to announce to that there’s municipal sewer and water being installed on Route 6, where there’s approximately 156 acres of commercial developable property which will continue to stabilize our tax base,” he said. “Without saying much, I’ve been working with the governor, been working with the speaker and the Senate president … and we’re looking at a major, major, major, major company coming to town, to come to Rhode Island, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed and say a Hail Mary.”
Polisena has been asked about running for another office, perhaps statewide, or coming back four years after his term ends to run for mayor again. He has left the door open to continuing his political career.
“I’ll say that many have said no, but never say never,” he said.
Following his address, Polisena delivered the oath of office and swore in Town Clerk Vincent Baccari, School Committee members Dawn Aloisio, Janice Mele and Susan Mansolillo, and Town Council members Linda Folcarelli, David Santilli, Joseph Polisena Jr., Robert Russo and Robert Civetti.
Baccari then called a Town Council meeting to order. Councilman Robert Russo was elected as council president and Joseph Polisena Jr. was elected as vice president, both by unanimous vote.
Johnston Probate Court Judge Paul DiMaio, Johnston Municipal Court Judge Michael DiChiro Jr. and Johnston Auxilliary Judge of the Johnston Municipal Court Jacqueline Grasso were also unanimously approved by the Town Council and sworn in.
In the final act of the ceremony, Polisena swore in Police Chief Richard S. Tamburini and Fire Chief Peter Lamb.