CENTRAL FALLS – “The darkest days of Central Falls are over,” Mayor James Diossa declared as he coasted in to a full term at City Hall without opposition on Tuesday.
Not only did Diossa win handily, capturing 96 percent of the vote with 23 voters casting write-in ballots, the entire slate of candidates he endorsed for City Council seats also won, although only one of them had an opponent.
In Ward 3, the only contested race, Hugo Figueroa bested Douglas Pendergrass by a margin of 92-61.
The other councilors-elect include Ann Racquier in Ward 1 (40 votes, 1write-in); Robert Ferri in Ward 2 (100 votes,1 write-in); Stephanie Gonzalez in Ward 4 (107 votes, 5 write-ins); Tammi Johnson in Ward 5 (75 votes, 4 write-ins), and Shelby Maldonado (297 votes) and Tia Ristaino-Siegel (287) in the new at-large council seats elected citywide (25 total write-ins).
Six of the seven council members will be newcomers; Ferri is the only incumbent who sought a second term.
In all, just 548 votes were cast, a paltry 8.26 percent of the city’s 6,633 registered voters. Some precincts reported seeing just 15 or 16 voters pass through all day.
Even though he gave his endorsement to the successful council candidates, Diossa, who had often butted heads with former council members, balked at saying they would be on his side.
“I think we are going to have healthy discussions and debates on what is best for the future of Central Falls and I feel great to know we all have the same interest and that is moving the city forward,” Diossa told The Times. “It’s exciting to know there are going to be new people on the council, with new ideas and new passions, but sharing the same vision that we all want to see Central Falls grow.
Asked if he thinks it is strange that, with the city coming out of bankruptcy and slated to be hit with the maximum 4 percent property tax increases in each of the next four years, that most of the candidates for elective office went unchallenged, Diossa said he doesn’t.
“It’s a clear sign that people wanted new representation and new voices and as people took the courageous step of pulling out their (nomination) papers, I think the public realized these are great champions.”
As for his agenda for the next three years – the city will move to even-numbered-year elections in 2016 – Diossa said he will continue “to focus on the needs of Central Falls residents: making sure the city will grow; cleanliness, public safety and education.
“The three years given to me by voters will allow me to plan economic development opportunities so the city can grow financially, and there is always an open, honest and transparent government,” the mayor said, adding that he wants to assemble a task force to fight slumlords in the city.
Diossa said he sees an opportunity to turn around the statistic showing that Central Falls has the highest unemployment of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns.
“This is a recovery period for Central Falls and there is a renewed spirit of faith and people wanting to work together” and reducing unemployment is one of the areas he wants to focus on.
Noting that a large part of the unemployment problem is blamed on the large number of residents who don’t have a high school or general equivalency diploma, Diossa pointed to a recent report from the School Department that the graduation rate has increased from 48 to 70 percent.
“The school district’s transformation model is working phenomenally and I am here as mayor to support them,” he said.
Also as a result charter changes approved by voters last year, City Councilors will now be elected to terms of two years each, down from the current four-year stints and will be limited to four two-year terms.
Mayors will be limited to two four-year terms and subject to recall by voters.
City elections will in the future be held on even-numbered years, at the same time as General Assembly and congressional races. Councilors elected on Tuesday will serve two-year terms. Those elected in 2015 will serve one-year terms, then two-year terms after 2016.
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