WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — The Woonsocket City Council is launching an investigation into a $1.1 million land deal the mayor made with a former business associate, expressing frustration and arguing the process left them in the dark and embarrassed the city.
The council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution Monday to hire an outside attorney to investigate the deal Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt unilaterally struck with Raymond Bourque, a well-known real estate owner whom the mayor once listed as her employer.
Target 12 first revealed the deal and the mayor’s past business dealings with Bourque last month, and city solicitor Michael Lepizzera has since moved to reverse the transaction, which involved four acres of vacant land off Mendon Road that was most recently assessed at just under $200,000.
Bourque’s attorney last week returned the $1.1 million, which Lepizzera said he is holding in an escrow account until the city takes the required legal steps to return the land to Bourque.
Despite the effort to cancel the deal, several city councilors lambasted the mayor for ever entering into the transaction without them. They have argued the move violated a city ordinance that requires council approval for all payments above $100,000.
“The fact that the funds are in the process of being returned does not make this problem go away,” Councilman Brian Thompson said Monday, taking aim at the mayor. “If someone robs a bank and returns the money later — guess what? They still robbed a bank.”
Council President Christopher Beauchamp, who described himself as Baldelli-Hunt’s close friend, also expressed frustration with the mayor’s decision to bypass the council. The mayor signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with Bourque in April and the city closed the deal last month, but several council members said they only learned about it after reading a list of real estate transactions regularly published in the newspaper.
“The perception of this whole deal — if you were never involved in any politics and you were just looking for the outside — stinks,” Beauchamp said. “I can tell you it’s disheartening to say today, ‘I’m from Woonsocket,’ when we have this happening. That’s a problem.”
Councilman John Ward, who introduced the resolution to hire the outside attorney, is the only remaining council member who successfully voted to remove Baldelli-Hunt from office last year, shortly before she ran unopposed and was re-elected to the job.
Ward told the council he wanted the impartial investigation in case the council “ever has to make decisions about this transaction.” And while he stopped short of saying the assessment could serve as a basis for once again ousting the mayor, the idea has been the topic of many behind-the-scenes discussions between elected officials and residents.
During a public comment segment of the meeting, Woonsocket resident Rhonda Charron suggested the council should ask the mayor to resign. Charron helped organize an unsuccessful write-in campaign against Baldelli-Hunt when she ran unopposed last year to regain her seat.
“We’re paying more in attorney fees than we are for her salary,” Charron told the councilors, noting the $150,000 the city spent last year during the removal process.
“We can’t afford to have her have the checkbook — it’s just not cool anymore,” she said. “I would really encourage you to ask her to resign because if not, we are fully capable to set up a petition and ask for her removal.”
Woonsocket is the only Rhode Island municipality where the City Council has the authority to remove a mayor. And it only takes a petition of 50 voters to file a complaint that can trigger the process.
Last month, Baldelli-Hunt talked openly with Target 12 about the deal with Bourque, saying she planned to build affordable housing on the vacant land. She argued the development would help the state with its ongoing housing crisis.
But she has since stopped responding to requests for comment. Target 12 has since revealed Baldelli-Hunt once listed Bourque as her employer on ethics filings. And she personally borrowed $182,000 from him in 2011 — which she failed to disclose on ethics filings in accordance with state law.
Bourque and his attorney have not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Several of Baldelli-Hunt’s department heads also refused to respond to questions from Thompson at the Monday meeting, saying they would only respond during a closed-door executive session meeting that’s been scheduled for Wednesday.
Lepizzera — who did answer questions — received praise from council members for his responsiveness since they learned about the deal last month. But the elected officials were clearly frustrated with the lack of answers from other department heads.
And that frustration has trickled out into the community.
“It would just look better on her résumé if she left rather than we booted her again,” Charron said.