CENTRAL FALLS – Just a week after his predecessor was sentenced to two years in prison on a federal corruption charge, new Mayor James Diossa signed a comprehensive set of new rules for city officials and employees into law that he promises will “set a new standard for ethics and transparency in Central Falls’ government.”
Diossa signed the law even Thursday night though his city is still under the control of a state-appointed receiver. The law, written by Diossa with the help of H. Philip West Jr., former director of Common Cause of RI and now an instructor at the University of Rhode Island, was passed by the unelected receiver’s council, with the elected City Council and the mayor still relegated to advisory status under state law.
Diossa said that when he launched his campaign for mayor, “I knew our city needed to move beyond the cloud of corruption and pay-to-play politics that hung over us.” That is why he proposed and signed the ethics ordinance.
The 12-page document contains a code of ethics with specific strictures on the behavior of public officials and employees in the performance of their duties, including misusing their position or information they gained as a result of their position, banning no-show jobs, the misuse of city vehicles or other property and performing outside work on city time.
It also requires every city employee with knowledge of any prohibited conduct to report it to the city’s Ethics Integrity Officer, a job designated to the City Solicitor, currently Richard Kirby.
The ordinance contains a revolving door law prohibiting elected officials from taking a job at a city agency during his or her term and for one year afterward.
It also restricts campaign activities, including soliciting campaign contributions during city time or in city facilities.
City employees indicted or arraigned on a felony offense related to their official duties would be suspended with or without pay, and would be fired upon conviction.
Lobbyists are required to register with the city clerk and file quarterly reports on their lobbying activities in the city. “The public has a right to know who are the key lobbyists lobbying their government,” Diossa said
The ordinance lays out a detailed procedure to reduce or revoke an employee’s pension benefits if they commit a crime related to their duties or otherwise render “dishonorable service.”
The city is prohibited from entering into a no-bid contract with any person or company that has contributed $300 or more to any candidate for city office. Diossa said that if that rule had been in place before, former Mayor Charles Moreau would not have been able to give a no-bid contract to his lifetime friend, Michael Bouthilette for boarding up houses in the city. That contract sent them both to jail after Bouthilette installed a boiler in Moreau’s home free of charge.
“We are taking an important step forward in demanding an open and honest government,” the mayor said, adding, “in doing so, we will put new signs at our city’s borders that will say ‘Open for Business.’”
Diossa credited West for “making sure we are moving in the right direction so that we never have to repeat the unfortunate recent chapter in our city’s history.
“I am convinced,” West said during a signing ceremony in the mayor’s office, “that this ethics code is the strongest small-city ethics code in the United States. It breaks a pattern that sometimes we’ve seen in Rhode Island, where when there has been ethnic change in a community that sometimes there has been pressure and compliance with an effort to give jobs to one’s own. What (Diossa) is saying here is that there is going to be a standard of excellence that will not favor any group.”
West told The Times, “I think this marks a moment when Central Falls breaks out of its old pattern.”
He said Moreau’s resignation, guilty plea and prison sentence, “have bulldozed open ground and once that happens, the question is what will grow there. If you don’t plant something quickly and well, you’ll have a lot more weeds that are worse than before. But if you plant well, and tend the garden, then this is a moment to build something pretty good, and that is what is happening in Central Falls, I’m convinced of that.
“Scandal creates a brief opportunity for reform,” West said, “but it doesn’t last very long.”