WESTERLY — Karen Cioffi, former head of the municipal Human Resources Department, was appointed Monday night to fill a vacancy on the Town Council. She was immediately sworn in following a vote of the council and assumed her new seat on the dais in Council Chambers at Town Hall.
The appointment ends a five-month long period during which the council had just six members, who generally did not deadlock except when it came to previous attempts to fill the vacancy. The meeting Monday night might have been no different, but when Councilor Philip Overton recused from the appointment vote the balance of power swung. Overton said he was advised by a state Ethics Commission lawyer to recuse because he has a business relationship with the mother of the other candidate, Fred Harwood.
The council first voted on Harwood, who garnered the support of councilors Mario Celico and Jean Gagnier but no one else. The council then turned to Cioffi, who was approved unanimously with councilors William Aiello, Jack Carson, and Edward Morrone joining with Celico and Gagnier.
As the council headed in to a closed-door executive session following its regular meeting, Cioffi reflected on her new position.
“I’m delighted with the outcome and think I will certainly have a lot to learn,” Cioffi said.
She pointed to lingering questions concerning Westerly State Airport as a top issue she is looking forward to tackling and helping to resolve for residents and cited the need for the council and the town to adopt a harbor management plan as another top priority.
“And I’m sure I’ll learn of new issues at the grocery store and as I’m out and about in the town. I’m another person available for people to present their concerns to. I’m looking forward to that. This is a great opportunity for me and for the residents to get their voice heard. We all have different people we talk to and I think I’ll be able to represent, at times, a cross-section of the town’s population that maybe hasn’t been heard from,” Cioffi said.
Harwood described Cioffi as “a good choice” and said Christopher Duhamel and Louis Sposato Jr., who were both previously considered but were unable to get a majority of the votes, “were also well qualified and would have also been good choices.” But Harwood also accused Aiello, Carson, and Morrone of putting politics at the fore.
“The outcome of the vote showed without a doubt that my feeling that the Democratic members put their politics as most important was absolutely true,” Harwood said.
Harwood, who served on the council in the 1980s, initially told The Sun that he decided not to pursue the vacancy after speaking with some councilors and coming away with the impression that some were overly focused on wresting control of the council’s meetings away from Celico, who has been running the meetings since former Council President James Silvestri resigned in June.
Celico, an unaffiliated voter who was once a Republican, is the council’s vice chairman. Harwood later reconsidered and applied to fill the vacancy.
“I hope the fact that I would not commit to removing Mr. Celico from [running the meetings] was not the deciding factor. As in poker, I do not show my hand unless called,” Harwood said.
Above all else, Harwood said he was glad the council now has seven members as set out by the Town Charter. “I move on, knowing that I gave it my best shot and for the right reasons. I wish this council well and hope they make decisions on the important issues that have been left on hold for such a long period of time,” Harwood said.
Celico’s tenure running the meetings could be nearing an end. Just before the council adjourned, Morrone tried to make a motion to “reorganize the council.” Celico questioned the validity of the motion since there was no mention of the council taking such an action on the agenda.
Town Attorney William Conley Jr. supported Celico’s point, saying the council could add an item to the agenda for discussion but should not vote. Conley said similar votes have been determined to run afoul of the state Open Meetings Act, which sets out parameters public bodies must follow for giving proper advance notice of meetings, setting agendas and running public meetings.