NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Nine of the 10 candidates for Town Council talked about the controversial library project, the town beach, seniors, zoning and more during an online forum hosted Sept. 30 by the Narragansett Pier Residents Association.
NPRA members Denis Lynch and Harold Schofield moderated the two-hour forum, the only such moderated discussion planned for this year’s Town Council race.
Each of the candidates had two minutes to respond to four of the questions posed by the moderators, and answered nine questions using shorter answers in what Lynch called a “semi lightning round” format. Susan Buonanno, the former council president before the 2018-20 term, was the only candidate not to participate.
Steve Belaus, a substitute teacher in the local schools for four years, has 38 years of corporate experience in finance, audits and project management.
“We need a fresh start. We just got through an unprecedented primary with 16 candidates running for Town Council,” he said. “That alone says a lot about how the residents of Narragansett are feeling these days. The dissatisfaction is obvious.”
Ewa Dzwierzynski, a pharmacist with the Yale-New Haven health system, said she is running to bring civility and transparency back to the council.
“I always approach things data-driven, not by emotion,” she said. “I want to do what’s best for our town and have the neighborhoods be the way that we want.”
Win Hames has served on several town boards and committees and is chair of the Democratic Town Committee. Hames said at the end of the forum that he’s been in quarantine for almost two weeks after testing positive for COVID, but that he’s healthy and looking forward.
“There are serious issues in the town now, including beach right-of-ways, housing, student rental problems. A lot of things have to be addressed that have been ignored over the last two years,” he said.
Library Board of Trustees President Laurie Kelly said the town has to go back to “the council listening to the will of the people,” and said the town should restore funding that had been cut for the library and fully develop the former Belmont/IGA building as a new library site.
“I’m also for establishing an EDC (Economic Development Committee) immediately. We need to address the small business problems coming with COVID in this town,” she said.
Deb Kopech retired in 2016 after an more than 40-year career in financial services and human resources director for Westerly schools. She teaches English as a second language and civics classes.
“Because of my extensive municipal and financial experience, I believe I can offer insight and expertise to the Town Council,” she said.
Incumbent council President Pro Tem Jill Lawler said she is seeking a third term to continue progress made by the current council.
“With me, residents are always going to come first,” she said. Lawler said the town should hire a person to oversee the town ordinance limiting students to three per house, and proposed regulating Air BnB type operations. “It’s not a good thing to have hotels come into our residential neighborhoods,” she said.
Lawler said she favors building a library that meets the town’s needs and budget, and selling to Pier Liquors the space it currently leases from the town in the Pier so the town can recoup taxes and other fees.
Rick Lema, also an incumbent, said he wants to continue on improving quality of life issues for Narragansett.
“COVID has damaged our economy and made it very difficult for small businesses and families to thrive,” he said. He also called the town beach “our biggest asset, and it is the right of our residents to use it.”
Lema also said he supports a library that is affordable to taxpayers, but that he would back the decision of voters who will decide the fate of a referendum that would confirm the Belmont site and prevent its sale.
Incumbents Patrick Murray, running for his third term, and Jesse Pugh, vying for his second, both listed the library as a key issue for voters, and Pugh also said providing coastal access for the public is a topic he wants to focus on more as well.
All of the incumbents were asked about the controversial library proposal, and how they would have acted differently over the past two years.
“The lawsuits clogged up the process and would not allow the town to govern,” Lawler said. “I would hope that someone would have not put the lawsuits on to stop the progress that this council wanted to do. We could’ve actually moved forward with selling the building.”
Lema said he would have moved forward with selling the Belmont building and preferred to see the library at the community center.
“It’s going to be new construction, the most innovative library in the state with what it will offer,” he said.
“I don’t know how I could do anything different,” Murray, who supports the proposal to move the library to the Belmont building, said. “I did everything I could to try to get a compromise.”
Pugh said looking back, he wished he could have been more composed and civil in some of the deliberations about the library.
“There were definitely moments where the behavior, myself included, was not the most becoming,” he said.
The new candidates and Buonanno are all on record as supporting the move to put the library in the Belmont building. Still, some shared views on how they would have proceeded.
“One of the things I would have done differently is maintain civility in every meeting,” Kopech said. “There were crazy blow-ups, people were mocked, called an angry mob. It was not pleasant to be there.”
Some of the candidates weighed in on the flurry of new development around Boon Street and how it could affect the town.
Belaus said a new library at the Pier could act as an anchor for development along Boon Street, but also said other properties such as the old movie theater should be looked at.
“We could probably either sell or convert the old library into some other businesses,” he said. “I’d like to try and attract other types of businesses as well, like a microbrewery.”
Lawler said Boon Street could serve as a center of commerce similar to Wakefield, and that moving the current library to the community center could free up the existing building for other uses.
“I know that we could drive more commerce into Narragansett,” she said.
Hames said he’s concerned about parking issues that could come with a new hotel on Boon Street, but that the street has always been underdeveloped and has promise.
“I think it could be a mini center of the town, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “I think the library would be a tremendous draw and asset to the area.”
Candidates Belaus, Lawler and Pugh said the proliferation of AirBnB type businesses in town deserves a closer look and perhaps more regulation from the town, such as licenses.
“Every single week different people are coming in and disrupting our neighborhoods,” Lawler said. “They’re using more water and sewer. As Steve said, they are operating as commercial businesses in our neighborhoods.”
“We all understand it’s a big issue in town and needs to be dealt with,” Pugh said.
Two of the lightning round questions asked the candidates whether they favor the new ordinance limiting student rentals to three unrelated people per dwelling, and asked if they support the four person limit previously in place. The candidates answered as follows: Hames, Kelly, Kopech, Belaus and Dzwierzynski said they support the four person ordinance.
The incumbents, Lawler, Lema, Murray and Pugh, tended to favor a combination of enforcing the three-person ordinance the council recently passed and keeping the four-person limit as well.
Dzwierzynski said she’s in favor of a code enforcement task force for noise and parking issues, and called the new ordinance limiting student renters to three unrelated people as rushed.
“I think we do need to work with the university if we need enforcement,” she said.
Kelly also called for a multi-pronged approach to addressing the student issues in town.
“Certainly people have the right for quiet enforcement of their neighborhoods,” she said. She’s not ready to hire a full-time enforcement officer, but would like to work with all stakeholders to find a solution.
Pugh said he would support a person tasked with overseeing and enforcing the ordinance.
“I don’t think this is something the building inspector should be doing,” he said. “There’s still a lot that needs to be discussed.”
Another lightning round asked if the candidates favored a long-term lease for Pier Liquors at the Belmont building. Lawler and Lema said the town should sell the space to the liquor store. Murray, Pugh, Hames, Belaus, Dzwierzynski, Kopech and Kelly support a long-term lease for Pier Liquors.