CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. —
The motto of Rhode Island’s smallest and most distressed municipality – “A City With a Bright Future” – just got renewed meaning.
That’s what officials said Thursday, a day after the mayor resigned and agreed to plead guilty to a federal corruption charge of accepting gifts in exchange for awarding a lucrative no-bid contract to board up foreclosed houses.
Charles Moreau’s plea agreement, which will likely lead to prison time, comes the same month a federal judge approved a fiscal recovery plan for Central Falls, paving the way for it to exit municipal bankruptcy.
A cloud has hung over Central Falls since the state took it over in 2010, the same year federal and state investigators began to look into whether Moreau had improperly received gifts from businessman Michael Bouthillette. Bouthillette has agreed to plead guilty to giving gifts in a scheme in which prosecutors say he made “unreasonable profits” boarding up houses.
Central Falls, a 1.3-square-mile city where a quarter of the 19,000 residents live below the poverty line, has struggled with the stigma of being the first – and only – Rhode Island municipality to enter bankruptcy protection.
The community center was closed, the library temporarily shuttered. Taxes went up. Pensions were slashed. Through it all, Moreau, who had served since 2004, and several members of the City Council publicly denounced the office of the receiver, whom they say has ruled like a dictator.
But the end of the bankruptcy and a special election for mayor have left Central Falls preparing for a fresh start.
James Diossa, the only City Council member to have actively worked with the receiver and a likely candidate for the top municipal job, said Moreau’s resignation closes what he called an “unfortunate chapter.”
“It’s a new day for Central Falls,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday, adding that the city needs a strong leader who will aggressively advocate for it at the state level and encourage economic development.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin called the day the plea agreements were announced a good one for Central Falls because residents were putting behind them both a “corrupt administration” and the bankruptcy.
Earlier this month, in approving the receiver’s five-year financial plan for the city, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Frank Bailey also spoke of the healing process he hoped could begin with a “tabula rasa.”
Leo Dufresne, a lifelong Central Falls resident who voted for Moreau twice before he heard about the corruption allegations, said the mayor’s resignation is good for the city.
“I think we’re doing better without a mayor,” Dufresne, 44, said Thursday while walking through the city’s Jenks Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
He noted that Central Falls is in the black financially – though he is concerned about crime, especially given cuts to the city’s police force.
Healing will not come easy in all quarters. City Council President William Benson Jr. remains bitter about the receivership, the constitutionality of which he and Moreau unsuccessfully challenged in state court. He maintains that he should be considered the acting mayor, though the state revenue director, Rosemary Booth Gallogly, said there is no need for him to step in and that a special election will be held.
The receivership will remain in place until Gallogly feels confident the elected leadership understands and will implement the new financial plan. The last thing the state wants, she has said, is to end up back in bankruptcy court.
Richard Des, 82, has lived in Central Falls for 27 years. He’s long known the former mayor, whom he calls by his nickname “Chuckie,” from the time Moreau ran a local restaurant.
“I don’t understand that kid,” he said. “He’s not a dumbbell. He’s a nice guy. I like him. How he put himself in such a predicament, I don’t understand.”
He guessed it was greed.
Des said he would move out of Central Falls if it weren’t for his subsidized housing. He doesn’t think the receiver has improved the city. He complains that the receiver got paid a lot of money – only to bring higher taxes and fewer services.
He takes issue with Central Falls’ hopeful motto.
“I’m not hopeful,” he said. “Not for this city.”