Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena took to the lectern Dec. 12 to address Town Council one last time while in office.
“This town, at one time, they would laugh at this town,” Polisena told the five-member council. “Not any more. People, they want to move into this town.”
In private, Polisena loves to tell stories of Johnston’s crooked, mob-infested past. Seated in his Town Hall office, which he says was emptied of furniture before he moved in, the outgoing mayor often recalls the dyer fiscal situation he inherited and managed to turn into a massive budget surplus.
Outspoken and unafraid of wielding his own brand of small town political intimidation, Polisena has been praised by fellow office-holders throughout the state as the mayor who kept FM Global in Johnston, lured Citizens Bank and hooked onto a giant Amazon robotic processing facility, which when it opens promises to be the largest building ever constructed in Rhode Island.
Polisena will swear-in his son, Mayor-elect Joe Polisena Jr., in a ceremony Jan. 9.
Weeks ago, the elder Polisena said he believes he may be the first father to swear his son into office in Rhode Island municipal government history. Unable to find another example, he thinks it may be the lone example in New England, and possibly the country.
The American political sphere has no shortage of family dynasties, though instances of a direct father-to-son mayoral transition may be unprecedented. At very least, it’s a rare situation.
The elder Polisena, a former firefighter, ambulance crew member, nurse, state senator and now outgoing four-term mayor thanked the Johnston Town Council for their cooperation implementing his unmistakably pro-business agenda.
“We just worked together so well … Working together, I always say that this town is blessed with the council they have,” Polisena said. “I really thank you all from the bottom of my heart. This will obviously be my last council meeting.”
Mayor-elect Polisena Jr. is the sitting Town Council Vice President.
The departing mayor leaves several projects initiated, but unfinished. He has critics, but his son cruised into office winning two-thirds of the General Election vote, over two independent opponents. No Democrats stepped up to challenge Polisena Jr. in last year’s primary. No Republican challenger entered the race to challenge the mayor’s son in the General Election.
“Keep up the good work doing the people’s business,” Polisena told the Town Council in early December. “We’ve all dealt with the so-called malcontents. They’re all over. We don’t own them in this town; they’re all over the place … Like I always say, there’s certain people in this town, they could have a rare disease, and they’ll be building a hospital that cures their disease, and they’ll be out in front of the hospital picketing. But like I said, that’s not just in Johnston, that’s in every community … When you stop and think and you look at Amazon.”
Almost every large parcel of undeveloped land in Johnston has been cleared for construction, or at least considered for development, under soon-to-be-former Mayor Polisena’s watch.
Less than two years after taking office, in April 2008, Mayor Polisena attended the groundbreaking for FM Global’s new Corporate Headquarters Office on Central Avenue.
Then-Governor Don Carcieri attended the ceremony to mark the start of construction on the four-story, 340,000 square-foot facility.
“This is a great day, not only for Johnston, but for the state,” Polisena said at the event. He told the crowd that he once helped herd cows in the field as a teenager.
“If I had a couple of more FM Globals, I'd have more hair, and it would be less gray,” Polisena joked. “They are good corporate citizens.”
A month later, work stopped at the site following controversy tied to the planning, zoning and permitting process.
“The town had to issue, by law, a stop order, which we did,” Polisena told the Johnston Sun Rise in May 2008. “When all is said and done, FM Global will prevail. [The town of Johnston] has dotted all our ‘i’s and crossed our ‘t’s.”
Polisena was right. The situation was resolved in court, and in September 2009, Polisena attended the building’s opening and dedication. He called FM Global “the crown jewel of Johnston.”
Polisena told the crowd he was “speechless” when he stepped inside the building’s foyer. The project cost $154 million.
“It was just a pile of dirt,” Polisena recalled at the dedication. “I’m proud and honored to be here, despite hitting some rough spots – and there were some.”
FM Global remains one of Rhode Island’s largest private companies and one of the world’s largest commercial property insurers.
Polisena often touts Johnston’s consistently climbing bond rating and a growing multi-million dollar town budget surplus. The town’s about to start the most ambitious school renovation project in Johnston history, building a new elementary center, new early education center, and extensive middle and high school facelifts.
The town easily passed a $215 million bond to cover the school project, and the mayor insists the tab will be covered by tax payments from online retail megalith Amazon — the town’s newest crown jewel.
Polisena rarely misses an opportunity to give his son credit for the school project. He says it was his son’s idea to plan renovations of the town school facilities simultaneously, taking advantage of a generous state reimbursement formula, which may ultimately cover as much as half the project cost.
Planners hope to start construction later this year, eventually close the town’s small elementary schools, and demolish, re-purpose or sell the buildings.
No Field Left Behind
Even large swathes of residentially zoned land have been made available to “green energy” companies looking to build industrial solar arrays, angering and mobilizing entire neighborhoods.
Polisena, a self-professed early-riser, recounted a recent trip to another example of Johnston’s recent economic success — the Ocean State’s second Market Basket, which opened on Hartford Avenue in 2021.
“I was in Market Basket yesterday, and I had about eight people come up to me,” Polisena recalled. “And I go early, pick up my coffee milk, because 99 cents versus 2.89 at other places … and people come up and say, ‘Thank God you put this in.’ We all did. And they appreciate that … And Citizens Bank.”
Polisena’s proud of the sprawling Citizens Bank Corporate Campus on Greenville Avenue — constructed on a large undeveloped plot of land west of Interstate 295. The complex includes ball fields and walking trails.
In August 2018, Citizens invited political office-holders from across the Ocean State to cut the ribbon on the $285 million project.
“Rhode Island is open for business and we welcome you, the business men and women, as well as the corporations that want to make Rhode Island their home,” Polisena told the Sun Rise in 2018. “When you come to Rhode Island and dip your toe in the business climate, you will end up investing your dollars in our great state. I am very excited about Citizens Bank making Johnston their new home. This project is living proof of what happens when the town, state and a private corporation work together for good, sound economic development.”
Polisena worked in concert with the state to open up that section of town and build an on-ramp to the passing Interstate. The project kept thousands of jobs in Rhode Island.
Four years later, at the Dec. 12, 2022 Town Council meeting, Polisena provided a glimpse into a few projects that may loom on the horizon.
“We have a for-profit hospital coming in,” Polisena said. “For-profit means they pay taxes. We have a medical facility going up there. And I’ve also been approached where a person wants to put (in) $60 million just in equipment, in diagnostic equipment. And it’s all because of what you all do here. They know that this is a no-nonsense town. We get things done. We do things the right way. And as I said, because everyone thinks … online … it’s a conspiracy theory because boards don’t meet. Well, people get sick.”
Throughout the town, following the restoration of the Chief Rainone Gym and the construction of the $3.5 million Daniel E. Mazzulla Jr. Indoor Recreation Center, youngsters will compete in state-of the-art athletics facilities and keep the tally on electronic scoreboards donated by Polisena — each scoreboard bearing the mayor’s name.
The town’s also constructing three new buildings — using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds — to house the vehicle fleets of the Department of Public Works, Police and Fire departments. Polisena has informed Town Council that the remainder of the town’s approximately $9 million in ARPA funds will be used to make improvements to Johnston’s youth athletic fields.
Polisena took great pride in keeping Town Hall open every business day throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Johnston’s a town where reputations stick.
Since Polisena took over the biggest office in Town Hall in 2006, Johnston has become the go-to Ocean State municipality for business development.
Johnston has also developed a “wild” reputation, following Polisena’s battles with local wildlife infringing on the town’s bustling business district.
An insurgent war waged by a small flock of turkeys in 2018 generated news stories for weeks.
“I’ve told my wife at least ten times, do not serve turkey for Thanksgiving,” Polisena told the Johnston Sun Rise. “I said we can have chicken, we can have lasagna, just don’t serve turkey on Thanksgiving, anything but turkey.”
A couple years later, a steer roamed the streets of Johnston, eluding its owners and local animal control officers, and tormenting town officials. Eventually the steer was captured and resettled on a rural farm in North Kingstown. Then, in June 2021, a donkey broke loose and was spotted running down Hartford Avenue.
“You heard of the horse with no name?” Polisena during a 2021 interview with the Sun Rise. "We have a jackass with no name.”
The donkey escaped and its whereabouts remain unknown.
The elder Polisena somehow speaks bluntly, but with a sharpened edge. Without hesitation, he roasts his detractors and loves to crack wise when he’s in command of a meeting.
His son, however, speaks softly and can often be hard to hear over the coughs and whispers of the audience during public session. The incoming mayor-elect pledges to work with everyone in town — the contrasts in style and public demeanor of the father mayor and his mayor-elect son are vivid.
“I really feel I’m leaving (Johnston) in competent hands,” Mayor Polisena said while delivering his outgoing Town Council address. “I think my son will do a great job. He’s got a different style than me. I think you all know that. And you probably like his style better than mine.”
Polisena wept on General Election night, as he introduced his son, the new mayor-elect.
On Dec. 12, he passed the baton.
“God bless you all,” Polisena told Town Council, which included his son, seated to the mayor’s right. “I wish you all the best of luck. The people of Johnston are lucky to have each and every one of you on the council. And the same thing goes for my son Joseph, you’re going to do a good job. I’m very proud of you, I think the people put their trust in you. You won by overwhelming numbers, which is great.”
Town Council President Robert V. Russo thanked the mayor for his years of commitment to Johnston.
“As a senator and as a mayor, you’ve been here a long time,” Russo said. “It was the collaboration of everybody working together that brings in these businesses; brings in people; keeps the tax rate steady. There’s a lot going on … there’s a lot of cooperation that goes on; a lot of hard work.”
On Jan. 9, following an inauguration, the transition will become official.
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