SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The Recreation Commission is looking to the town council guidelines and procedures when it comes to renaming or dedicating public buildings. 

Although the council initially turned to the commission on the heels of a community member’s request to rename the senior center, commission members expressed a number of concerns with the charge being brought before them.

At the moment, the town does not have any set policies for naming buildings or facilities after community members, according to Director of Leisure Services Terry Murphy. 

“With no policy, we would be setting a lot of precedents that I’m not sure this commission wants to be setting,” said Recreation Commission Chair David Palazzetti. 

No one, however, made any arguments against the name being placed before them. Multiple commission members said the nominee’s merits spoke for themselves.

Last month, John Patrick Shanley wrote to the council with the request for renaming the town’s senior center in memory of Barbara Ann Hackey, an active, lifelong community member and an unforgettable face in local politics. 

Hackey, who passed away in the fall, spent decades of her life in service to South Kingstown. She became the first woman to ever serve on the zoning board of review, and was the first woman elected as town moderator — a position she held for an entire decade “with wit and humor,” according to Shanley. 

In 1987, Hackey made an overwhelmingly successful run for town council and would hold onto her seat for another 17 years. Despite being the top vote-getter that first year, Hackey declined to serve as president until she knew what she was doing. Ultimately, she would go on to serve as town council president for five terms. 

According to Shanley, his late friend had no shortage of achievements, but her involvement in the construction of the senior center was instrumental.

“I can state without hesitation, that during her years on the council, she diligently and doggedly fought for a place for our senior citizens to meet their social and recreation service needs,” Shanley wrote to the council, noting that at the onset of her efforts, “no one particularly wanted it.”

“I’m well aware that our town does not often name its public buildings, but in this case, she put the building up ‘brick by brick,’” he added.

Between her years as a public servant, politicking to create such a space for seniors, and the decades she spent as a nurse at South County Health, Shanley makes the strong case that Hackey was someone who “gave much more than she took.”

Murphy and Senior Services Director Susan DiMasi both post-dated the Barbara Ann Hackey era, “but of course we’re well aware of her history and her contributions to the town,” Murphy explained. And having reached out to Hackey’s family, Murphy was able to confirm that they were delighted by Shanley’s request to the council. 

Regardless of Hackey’s merits, Palazzetti worries that making a recommendation with no set policy in place would mean operating outside the charter. And although senior services have become enveloped under the umbrella of leisure services, Palazzetti worried that the commission would be “kind of oversetting [its] bounds, because [they] don’t oversee senior services.”

“For me, personally, I’d love to see it named after her,” said Recreation Commission Vice Chair John J. Biafore. “I would participate in a recommendation based on her merits, but I would agree that this is something the council should look at.” 

Joanne Blessing also expressed reluctance to make a recommendation to the council at this time, echoing concerns from others about what the commission should do in the future if more requests are made in the future. She also addressed the fact that other wonderful contributors could follow Hackey in the years to come, but the town will come to a point when there are no more buildings to go around. 

William Litvin pointed out that this suggestion to rename the senior center might have created the perfect opportunity for such a policy to formally be created, rather than setting a precedent above and beyond their charge. He made the motion to begin a public discussion around a potential policy.

“I hate for it to sound like a kickback,” Biafore said, “but the reality is that’s our thoughts on it — there needs to be a policy.”

Palazzetti also noted that the majority of public buildings or spaces someone might want to have renamed in memory of a fellow community member, most likely, will fall under the purview of the parks and recreation department. 

Murphy acknowledged that the senior services program isn’t strictly recreational, though, and there’s a huge human services component. For example, DiMasi has spent the better part of the past few weeks reaching out to the senior population directly, via telephone, to help register them for vaccine appointments. 

Murphy commended DiMasi and her phone banking team, who she said have been working tirelessly to make sure everyone gets vaccinated. These phone banking efforts will likely continue for at least another month, though. 

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