Central Falls, RI – By SCOTT MACKAY -- Central Falls is Rhode Island's poorest community. Its schools are wards of the state, unemployment is soaring and too many of the sturdy triple-deckers that have housed generations of immigrants are boarded up. But the saddest recent news in Central Falls is how its citizens are being betrayed by their leaders.
There are signs of hope these days all over Central Falls, the old red-brick mill town on the Blackstone River. Change is finally afloat in the low-performing schools, which are undergoing a novel and experimental turnaround. A new generation of Spanish-speaking immigrants is starting up new businesses and planting new cultures in this tiny, one-square mile city.
At the soaring Gothic Cathedral that is the Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church, Father Timothy Lemlin and his assistants are shepherding this new wave of immigrants to the timeless mysteries of the Christian faith.
Yet, a dark cloud hangs over Central Falls these days because some members of an entrenched City Hall political gang seem bent on undermining progress in the gritty city.
First there was news that Police Chief Joseph Moran ``retired '' as chief so that he could collect his pension. Then he was hired back so that he could collect a $43,000 a year pension on top of his $72,000 salary. He also pocketed a payment of about $35,000 in accumulated sick time.
Then came the revelations about Mayor Charles Moreau and how he hired a buddy to board up foreclosed houses in the city. Moreau's friend, a man named Michael Bouthillette, has collected about $1.4 million to secure abandoned and foreclosed buildings. (An in-depth examination of this issue by Providence Journal investigative reporters Mike Stanton and Bill Malinowski ran in the April 25 Sunday Journal.)
The Rhode Island state police are investigating this scheme along with other possible City Hall corruption. ``We've turned up some things that are of great concern to us,'' says Col. Brendan Doherty, head of the state police.
Last week, a spokeswoman for Mayor Moreau denied any wrong doing. She said boarding up the foreclosed houses was an effort to secure the properties and get them back on the real estate market. Maybe so. But as the police pursue their investigation none of this looks right. It appears to be the pillaging of a struggling community by its political leaders. It resembles what happens in third-world countries when an entrenched elite plunders the treasury at the expense of the poor.
About half the residents of Central Falls are of Hispanic ancestry, but most of the elected officials are not. The city's Latino community has not been very vocal about this possible betrayal but that may be changing, says James Dirossa, a 24-year old Democrat who is the city's newest council member.
Like many of his constituents, Dirossa is of Columbian heritage. He says one of the unfortunate hallmarks of Columbian political culture is that the prevalence of tyranny has bred a deep cynicism about government. In the old country, criticizing public officials often meant waking up at midnight with a gun to your ear.
Dirossa says flatly, ``They don't believe in government.''
Yet, he is optimistic and calls Central Falls a ``hopeful city.''
He's right, but is time for all of the new residents of Central Falls to demand that City Hall wake up and act in the interests of the citizens. Central Falls should be one square mile, not one square fiefdom.
Scott MacKay's commentaries can be heard every on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. His commentary is also posted at WRNI.org. You can follow Scott's reporting and analysis at the WRNI.org `On Politics' blog.