Did the Mayor Violate the Nepotism Clause?

Going into summer 2014, Woonsocket’s unemployment rate was nearly 10 percent — well above the state average. And it was particularly tough for teenagers to find a job in a market where they were sometimes competing with unemployed adults. Tough, that is, unless you were the mayor’s son. Or one of his friends.

Woonsocket’s new mayor, Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, decided to bring back a so-called summer work program for teenagers that had been abolished years ago for lack of money. It turns out her 16-year-old son and teammates from his summer baseball league were the only ones who knew about the part-time jobs.

We found them, city-issued brooms in hand, out sweeping sand off the sidewalks of busy streets throughout Woonsocket in July and August. At $10 an hour, the jobs paid a full two dollars above minimum wage. A total of 10 boys, ranging in age from 15 to 18, were employed by the city. No girls were hired. The mayor’s son, Sam, was the second-highest earner, taking home $880 over the summer. The top earner received just under $1,000.

So we caught up with the mayor as she arrived for work one day to find out more about the program, which was not advertised or included in this year’s budget.

Jim Hummel:  How many people involved?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I believe there were nine or 10 of them.

JH: And your son was one of them.

LB : Yes he was.

JH: So how did he wind up getting that job?

LB: Actually all of the youth who filled out an application, every single one of them, worked. I would have liked two or three times the amount of children, so hopefully next year we can begin that process a little earlier because it didn’t start until sometime in July. So I would like to begin it at the end of June when school is released and work them longer.

JH: How did the word get out then? How did they know?

LB: Actually I was with a group of athletes and asked them one day, ‘Where are you working? What are you doing for the summer?’ Most of them said they were not able to find jobs. So I said, ‘Would you like to consider doing some work in the city, cleaning the streets and such?’ and nine or 10 of them said yes. And they filled out the applications and the parents were very grateful for that and it kept their kids busy and got them a little extra money for school and clothing.

In our interview the mayor told us the money came from the Public Works budget, specifically from an unfilled position. The city clerk, in response to a public records request, indicated the $5,700 used to pay the teenage boys came from the Highway Temporary Services Account.

While the Woonsocket City Council passes yearly budgets, it is done under strict supervision from a state budget commission, which took over the city’s finances in 2012.

JH: Did you advertise those positions?

LB: No, it was not advertised in the newspaper.

JH: Your son and a lot of his baseball team was involved.

LB: A good portion of them were baseball players, yes.

JH: What about the perception that the mayor’s son got a job, that maybe a lot of other kids didn’t know about and could have gotten and would have wanted to work?

LB: I did think of that when he indicated he wanted to do it. But I figured, why discourage someone, especially a youth, from wanting to work, when nobody was left out of the equation?

JH: But how many people knew about it?

LB: The number of people who knew about it were the people who I just happened to be speaking with one day at a function.

Our story has resulted in a firestorm of reaction. The former city council president in Woonsocket filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, which then voted to launch a full investigation into his allegation that the hiring violated the nepotism clause of the ethics code.

Local and statewide talk radio had a field day with the issue. The mayor initially told The Woonsocket Call newspaper in a followup story to our report that she didn’t think she did anything wrong. She later told WPRO’s Dan Yorke that the hirings were a “misstep.” And in late October she amended that in an interview with WPRI-TV, calling it a “mistake.”

The one media outlet with which she has declined further discussions? The Hummel Report.

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to www.HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.

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