WESTERLY — The 11 candidates seeking election to the Town Council fielded questions Thursday on a host of topics including Westerly State Airport, opioid abuse, and the state of Winnapaug Pond during a candidates forum hosted and organized by the League of Women Voters of South County.
An audience of about 40 was on hand for the event which was intended to introduce the candidates to voters and to give them an opportunity to explain why they should be trusted to govern.
Thomas Northup, who works as a police officer in New London, called for a concerted effort to address opioid abuse in the town. The “hands of the Westerly Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force should be untied” and the group helped in its search for grant funds to combat the problem, he said. Local police should be freed up to work with other police departments in neighboring towns, including in Connecticut to address the problem, he said. Northup, who is running as a Republican, said six Westerly High School classmates of his 23-year-old daughter have died from opioid abuse.
Sharon Ahern, who is running as an unaffiliated candidate, offered a different approach saying Westerly Hospital or the police department should head up the effort to address the opioid problem.
While it is an issue that falls more obviously under the realm of the School Committee, each candidate was asked their position on the $63.5 million elementary school redesign project which was approved by a 4-3 vote by the School Committee in July. Estimated state aid for the project would reduce the cost to about $29 million to $39 million for the town’s taxpayers. Democrats Christopher Duhamel, Suzanne Giorno and William Aiello said they did not support the project. Brian McCuin, the fourth Democrat candidate, said he was undecided. The other candidates, Republicans Philip Overton, Mario Celico and Northup; Ahern, and the other unaffiliated candidates: Caswell Cooke Jr.,Louis Sposato Jr. and Karen Cioffi all said they supported the project approved by the majority of School Committee members. Aiello called the plan “premature and reckless” while Giorno said she favored a different project to ensure adequate funds are available for projects to address the needs of a wider spectrum of residents, including senior citizens.
Sposato, who earned a reputation for preparedness when he served on the council to fill a vacancy in 2015 to 2016, was ready when a question about the future of Westerly State Airport surfaced. Reading from a prepared list he said he would work to have the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, which manages the facility, commit to not expanding the size or operations of the airport. Additionally, he said, he would ask for set hours of operations and no flights at night other than emergency ones.
McCuin called the airport an asset despite what he called RIAC’s “dishonesty.” The citizens advisory board appointed to help improve communication between the town and the airport is “a helpful start,” McCuin said.
Cooke, who previously served on the council for 12 years as a Republican, said the Town Council should reinstate a practice of assigning funds to an account to help cover some of the cost of dredging Winnapaug Pond. He was instrumental in creation of such a fund but the council has not always committed funds to it. Overton said the pond’s role as a natural resource is significant and officials must be dogged in seeking funds to have it dredged.
“Winnapaug Pond represents the health of our community,” Overton said.
Ahern, a maritime and environmental lawyer who previously worked in Town Hall as chief of staff to town managers Joseph Turo and Steven Hartford, paraphrased a line from Dorothy a character in The Wizard of Oz while explaining why she decided to seek election. “It’s all about home,” she said, recalling Dorothy’s “There’s no place like home,” line.
This article was edited at 6:49 p.m. on Oct. 12, 2018 to correct Celico’s party affiliation. He is running as a Republican.