WESTERLY – First came the solemn words, the pomp, and the ceremony. Then came the politics in the form of a split vote on who should serve as the new council president and concerns about the process used to elect council officers.
A packed house was on hand Monday in the Council Chambers at Town Hall as one Town Council transitioned out and the new one was sworn in to start its two-year term. Father Giacomo Capoverdi, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, delivered an invocation to open the proceedings; Rev. David Joslin, rector emeritus of Christ Church Westerly offered a blessing before the new Town Council and new School Committee members took an oath of office; and Rev. Cal Lord, pastor of Central Baptist Church, performed the benediction.
After commendations were awarded to each of the outgoing Town Council and School Committee members as well as to the outgoing assistant solicitors, municipal and probate court judges, and town sergeant and deputy sergeant, the Westerly Police Honor guard escorted the council and School Committee elect members into the council chambers.
Carly McGill, a Westerly High School junior who serves as the Town Council’s student representative, performed the National Anthem.
Christopher Duhamel was elected to serve as president of the Town Council, by a 4-3 vote. It will be the second time he has served in the position. He was elected president following the 2014 election and served for about six months before resigning the post saying demands on his time from his job as a vice president at DiPrete Engineering Associates had increased. He now holds the same position.
“I feel I do have the time. Each of the seven councilors ran with the same zeal to help the town. Why would I want to stop that? I want to work with all of the councilors,” Duhamel said during a reception in the Municipal Courtroom following the ceremony.
The council will likely study the town’s financial footing and ability to take on new debt in the initial weeks of its term, Duhamel said. While voters on Election Day approved borrowing up to $15 million over three years for road and infrastructure projects, Duhamel said he needs information on the town’s ability to take on the new debt as a proposed $71.5 million elementary school redesign project works it way through the School Committee and the council. The local overall cost of the school project, to Westerly, after anticipated aid from the state, would be between $29 million and $39 million.
Councilors William Aiello, Suzanne Giorno, Brian McCuin and Duhamel himself voted in favor of Duhamel becoming council president. Councilors Sharon Ahern, Caswell Cooke Jr. and Karen Cioffi were opposed. Ahern and Cioffi both explained that they voted against Duhamel because of concerns with the process used to fill the position of council president.
After the ceremony, Cooke, who is unaffiliated, said the selection of Duhamel, who ran this year as a Democrat after previously serving on the council for 14 years as a Republican, boiled down to politics. “I’m a little disappointed. Chris has been a friend and a running mate...I’m a little hurt but it’s politics. I don’t have to agree,” Cooke said.
Cooke noted that Duhamel’s previous stint as council president was a brief one.
“Chris Duhamel was the hardest working town councilor we’ve ever had but he was president for [six months] once before and resigned. I don’t have confidence in him as president...it seems like this was decided before they showed up,” Cooke said.
Cooke said he would have supported Ahern, the top vote-getter in the election, as a candidate for the council presidency. The council has, at times, elected the top vote-getter president.
Giorno, a Democrat, was elected vice president by a 6-1 vote. Cooke cast the vote in opposition. Ahern, who ran as an unaffiliated candidate, declined a nomination to be considered for the vice presidency. Ahern was the top vote getter in the general election. Aiello, a Democrat, said he nominated Ahern “in the spirit of cooperation.”
McCuin and Giorno are both Democrats. Cioffi ran as an unaffiliated candidate.