WESTERLY — In her history of Westerly, "The Town that Saved a State," author Mary Agnes Best posited the theory that Westerly and Rhode Island as a whole owe their existence to the commitment of the town's earliest settlers. Eighty-two years later, longtime residents and public servants say they've witnessed that same type of spirit in local politics and the administration of government.
"In all probability the bantam colony would have fallen prey to strong and implacable ill-wishers but for the unyielding resistance of the men of Westerly," Best wrote in her book for the tercentenary of Rhode Island in 1936.
Ninety-five-year-old John "Coach" Stellitano said the town's elected leaders have managed, as a whole, to keep an eye on the collective. Despite occasional flaring controversies, Stellitano said the town's elected and appointed leaders set the stage for a predictable lifestyle.
"Most of the participants in the government of the town seem to do an adequate job in terms of taxation and services. For myself and my family it has been a comfortable life here with a sense of consistency," Stellitano said.
The foundation provided by the Town Council and others offers reassurance, Stellitano said. "As a citizen I put my complete faith and trust in the wisdom of the councilors. They don't always bat 1,000 percent but for the most part I've had no complaints," the retired Westerly High School coach and teacher said.
Stellitano also said two of the town's current legislators stand out. "Dennis Algiere, I have a great deal of respect for his service both as a town councilor and as a state senator," he said.
He also praised the work of his former student, state Rep. Sam Azzinaro, D-Westerly. "He's the only one I've publicly supported," Stellitano said, pointing out that while he keeps an eye on the local scene he has mostly been a quiet observer.
Another longtime resident acknowledged the struggles that members of the Town Council endure but said most councilors tried to make a contribution based on their experience and personal style.
"In my opinion these people tried to do good. If we all looked the same it would be a boring world. They saw things they thought should be addressed based on their beliefs of what was good for the town," said Joe Cugini, former president, CEO, and chairman of the board of the Westerly Community Credit Union.
"The way I look at it is these people are just normal everyday people. You've got to give them credit that they're willing to get out there and serve their town," Cugini continued.
Decades ago, the town committees for both the Democratic and Republican parties played a big role in the local political scene, Cugini said. Those were the days when people such as Sylvester Morrone, former head of the Democratic Town Committee, held a lot of sway.
"The town committees played a more significant role. Now they seem to have pulled their horns in and there are a lot more independents who are not associated with a party," Cugini said.
In addition to longtime Town Council member Richard Comolli, who died in 2017, Cugini said Mary Jane DiMaio, the council's first female president, stands out as an important contributor to local politics. "She brought a different, warmer approach," he said.
Cugini also pointed to Quentin J. DeSimone as a memorable figure. He played a significant role in the town's transition to its current budget process. Under the system, the Board of Finance was created and budgets are approved by the Town Council after review and recommendations from the board. Residents can petition for a referendum but the budgets are no longer subject to town meeting approval. Known as the town's "financial watch dog," DeSimone served as chairman of the finance board for 20 years. He also served on the Town Council.
Former Town Council President Edward Morrone recalled growing up in town when his cousin, Sylvester Morrone, headed up the Democratic Town Committee. Edward Morrone said he was also influenced by Joseph Turco's time as the top Democrat. "They were good people who had the best interests of the community in mind," Morrone said. "It helped to grow up in their midst."
Morrone first served in the state House of Representatives when James Federico was the town's state senator and Henry Boeniger was the town's other state representative. "It was an interesting and exciting time," Morrone, who later served in the state Senate, recalled.
In the end, Morrone said he and others were motivated to seek election because "we're trying to make a difference and are interested in the quality of life for the community as a whole." Once in office, Morrone said he faced a steady volume of requests for help. "Whether it was Social Security, health, fuel, electricty, food or medical. These are the needs and adversities that people sometimes face," Morrone said.
Having just completed a two-year term on the Town Council, Morrone plans to remain a close observer while enjoying his grandchildren and other endeavors.
"In the end I guess it is history that will tell us whether we we did good and served well," Morrone said.
As for the assertion that Westerly was the town that saved the state, it all has to do with Rhode Island's status as a "heretic colony" and attempts by Massachusetts and Connecticut to claim the land as their own.
The greater Westerly area was a prime battleground. There were numerous disputes that resulted in "endless turmoil," including the destruction by Westerly men of "a house built by Stonington men on the east side of the Pawcatuck," according to Best.
As she reported in the book, which was published in 1943, "the history of the feuds between the squabbling colonies is like reading the same page over and over again, ad nauseum." The boundary question wasn't settled until 1728, and by an agreement signed at Westerly, "citizens of this town for the first time in its existence could sleep peacefully in their beds on the east side of the Pawcatuck."