Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles of the new leaders of Central Falls, a community emerging from the turmoil of bankruptcy to become a virtual New City, with new officials in place and new goals for the future.
CENTRAL FALLS — Remember all that talk months ago about Central Falls merging with other communities, with Pawtucket taking a chunk of the little city and Cumberland picking up the rest?
Well, you can forget about it, now that Mayor James A. Diossa is in charge.
He is without doubt one of the biggest boosters of the state’s smallest city, devoted to keeping it independent and making it prosperous once again. He sees no need for a merger because he sees great potential without it.
“The city has suffered from poor leadership in the past, but this is a community full of pride and hard-working people. The opportunities and the potential are there,” Diossa said. “I wouldn’t even entertain a conversation [about merging].”
Diossa is 27 years old, a lifelong resident of Central Falls and former city councilman, who became the youngest mayor in state history after winning a December special election with 62 percent of the vote.
His parents are from Colombia and he speaks Spanish. He is committed to Central Falls because the city provided a precious “sense of community” as he was growing up. “What’s so special about Central Falls is that it gave my family an opportunity to own a home and to work in the city,” he said, “and it gave me a great education.”
His election is a clear sign of the rising prominence of the Latino community in Central Falls. Latinos now account for 60 percent of the city’s population and, to the casual observer, it is Latino businesses that seem to be thriving the most along Broad and Dexter streets. “But I’m here for all,” Diossa stressed, “not just a particular group.”
He takes over at a sensitive but challenging time, as the city emerges from bankruptcy with a five-year court-mandated plan that governs finances, including hefty tax increases and deep pension cuts. His predecessor is in federal prison, serving time on corruption charges. It’s a course of events that some say makes a mockery of the Central Falls motto: “City With a Bright Future.” But that’s not how Diossa sees it.
Five years from now, he envisions Central Falls as a “model city” that is clean and safe, with a transparent government working for the people, “a lot of economic development,” more home ownership, and educational standards that keep rising. “I’m very optimistic,” he adds, almost apologetically, “but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it.”
Diossa already has taken some steps toward his ambitious goals. He visited Quonset Point in April and came away impressed by the streamlined methods its development corporation uses to encourage investment.
He extended City Hall hours in May, keeping it open one evening each week. “Especially in a city like Central Falls,” the mayor said, “many people work during the day. Accessibility is extremely important to me.”
He has hired new personnel, such as a chief of staff for the mayor’s office, a new town planner and a new finance director, as well as two attorneys to pursue local code violations. He’s privatized trash collections, saving money by eliminating six jobs.
He championed a new code of ethics for city officials and employees “to build trust again,” he said, that took effect in January – a first for the city and a key element of Diossa’s campaign for mayor last year.
The 12-page ethics reform ordinance apparently was adapted for Central Falls from the Providence code, as a review of the two measures reveals the same structure and a lot of the exact same language in both.
The code, among other things, tightly restricts no-bid contracts (a factor in the conviction of Diossa’s predecessor), protects whistleblowers, revokes pension benefits for dishonorable service, and creates the position of “integrity officer,” available to confer with employees on a confidential basis. Penalties at $250 per offense max out at $25,000 a year.
Diossa has been in office such a short time that few controversies have arisen around him, but critics complain that he seems to rely to an extreme degree on Providence Mayor Angel Taveras for guidance. “I have a lot of mentors,” Diossa responded, naming Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee and Pawtucket Mayor Dan Grebien as two others.
“I consider Mayor Diossa to be a friend,” Taveras said in an e-mail response, “and I think he has a bright future ahead of him. His enthusiasm, vision and integrity are helping to bring back the great city of Central Falls and I support him in this work.”
The Times contacted two local business leaders in Central Falls to see what they think of Diossa and his performance to date.
“I think what he is doing is good,” said Jerauld C. Adams, principal of North American Industries Inc., a real estate development company housed in a renovated mill on Clay Street.
“What he’s done that others couldn’t do is to connect with the people in the city,” Adams said. “He may not be a Harvard graduate, but he’s willing to listen.” Adams is also vice chair of the state Economic Development Corp. board of directors.
“I’m glad he has the opportunity to be mayor,” said Dr. Carmen Sanchez, owner and operator of Comfort Dental, with offices on Dexter Street in Central Falls and in south Providence.
“He’s a young guy, he has a lot of inspiration about making change in the community, he’s committed, he’s very responsible. I have a good feeling that he’s going to make a change in the community,” Sanchez said.
The mayor’s salary is usually $72,000 a year, but Diossa took a pay cut and is accepting only $64,000 because, he said, “I feel I needed to share in the sacrifice” made by city residents in tough economic times. He also has declined use of a city cell phone and a city vehicle.
A 2009 graduate of Becker College in Worcester, with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he recently purchased a single-family home on Central Street, so he is not likely to leave any time soon. “I’m vested,” he said with a grin. His mother is still in Colombia, but his father, Bernardo Diossa, owns a home in Central Falls and works at Osram Sylvania Inc.
A Democrat, Diossa is running for re-election in November. Asked about higher office someday, he did not rule it out. “If I do good work, I’m sure some opportunities will open up,” he said.