former Belmont

The former IGA/Belmont building in the Pier Marketplace purchased for a new town library in 2018. 

NARRAGANSETT – One topic has dominated the Narragansett Town Council’s past term – a new public library. Given the extensive debate on the topic in recent years, its prevalence in town matters and its overall significance, The Narragansett Times contacted all town council candidates on the Sept. 8 Primary Election Ballot and asked a simple question – “do you support moving the Narragansett Library to the former IGA/Belmont Marketplace building in the Pier Marketplace and why or why not?”

The candidates’ responses are included below in the order in which the candidates will appear on the Primary Election ballot. Those responding were asked to keep their answers limited to 200 words.

Joseph Robenhymer

“I am in favor of the library moving to the Belmont building. This thing has been going on for years, a decade. The current building has issues with fire code and the Americans with Disabilities Act and there’s just not the space there. To renovate that building would be, I think, cost prohibitive. I think at the Belmont, you have much more space there and it’s wide open. The big part of it too is that with the Belmont building, you will have all of those additional parking spaces. Whereas, at the old library, you have very little.”

A challenger for a council seat in 2020, Robenhymer is a real estate agent with Ann O’Brien Realty, a local business.

David Avedisian

“I support the voter referendum from 2016, the $5.8 million bond to relocate the library to the IGA building. I think the voters spoke pretty clearly on that. I actually think this year’s election is not so much a referendum on the library, but a referendum on our democracy. We have a democracy here that’s been under attack by the current town council, where they’ve been elected to do the people’s work, where the people directed them to do something, and they chose to go in a different direction.”  

“I view it almost as a presidential election where you have electors. Electors are supposed to do the will of the people and the direction the people point them in. While this election is about the library, I think it’s more about our democracy, our representative government, the representatives that we elect and what they’re supposed to do for the people after the people have very vocally participated in public meetings or voted in approval of a particular bond referendum, whether it be a road project, a library, a playground, a school or the purchase of new safety equipment, whatever it might be. That’s what I feel this election is really about.”

Avedisian is a history and civics teacher at North Kingstown High School. As the Narragansett Town Sergeant (who is charged with keeping order at council meetings) from 2016 to 2019, Avedisian has attended many town council meetings in the past two terms and spoken publicly on a number of topics. He is a challenger for a seat on the council in 2020.  

Patrick Murray

While Murray, a local real estate broker and incumbent serving on the council since 2014, could not be reached for comment for this article, he has spent the last two terms advocating and fighting for the library project to be realized in the former IGA/Belmont space in the Pier Marketplace. Despite initially voting against the purchase in the plaza, Murray changed his mind in 2018 and ultimately approved the acquisition. Since that vote, the incumbent has clashed with the current council majority over the issue, frequently debating the majority’s opposition to the project, attempting to restore full funding the library board and touting the low taxpayer cost of converting the Pier Marketplace property for a new town library.

Michael Millen, Jr.    

“I am in full support of the Library moving into the Belmont building. This move, or any other public referendum, are not a matter of opinion for me. A majority of residents voted for the move and previous councils ignored the will of the people. Correcting this injustice is a priority for my candidacy.”

“It is disheartening that at this stage of this process there are still those who are trying to derail the library’s move to Belmont. There was years’ worth of time, effort, and research put into the decision of how to modernize the library. The only sensible option to preserve the library’s future, meet ADA standards, state and federal guidelines, is to move to the Belmont building. Changing course now and going back to square one would be devastating since it has taken this long just to get where we are today. Certain current members of the council still want to assess other locations and options including renovating the existing Library. This is disrespectful and disappointing. This has already been done by those who have spent over a decade working to create a cost-effective proposal that was based on research and facts. Let’s listen to them!”

Millen, Jr., a challenger for a council seat in 2020, is a brewer at the Isle Brewer’s Guild in Pawtucket and holds a degree in chemistry from Salve Regina University.

Deborah Kopech

“I have supported the plan to move the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library to the building owned by the Town of Narragansett located in Pier Marketplace for several years. Over the past two years, I have become more involved with this project: supporting the library by; becoming a member of the Friends of the Library and Love Your Library. I volunteer with fundraisers supporting activities presented by the library especially, but not just, for children. I have attended programs that enhanced my understanding of history, geology and natural resources of this region, attended movies and used computer equipment with my work as a mentor for people learning our language and culture. I have used the facilities to research topics for classes that I teach and borrow ebooks frequently.”

“This is a warm inviting place with smart, thoughtful people at the helm and behind every desk. But they are limited in their scope by the limitations of their space and that is unfortunate.  I feel that a great deal of planning, consideration and hard work has gone into the decision to move into this building, I trust the experts and cannot wait to get this project moving forward.”

Kopech, a challenger in 2020, worked in finance for over 26 years before retirement. Since the library issue came to a head in 2018, Kopech has publicly supported the library board the facility’s move to the former IGA/Belmont building frequently. 

Jill Lawler

“My position on the library has never wavered. Narragansett needs a better library. The Library Board wants us to believe that the current library could not be renovated or, if it could, the total cost would be more than the purchase and buildout of the Gilbane Building. Monday’s workshop revealed that this is not true. It is possible to renovate the existing library for around $5 million. While a new library at the Gilbane Building might cost the same, we must add to that cost the $2.8 Million purchase price, tax losses of $28,000 per year, and the yearly $38,000 common area fees. A small group of library supporters, not satisfied with the results of the 2018 election, filed lawsuits and ballot initiatives to block the Council’s ability to sell the Gilbane Building and recoup $2.8 million of town emergency funds.

If Narragansett taxpayers want to preserve the option of an affordable library at either the current site or at the Community Center, it is critical to vote in the primary in favor of the only three candidates opposed to the Gilbane Building. Lawler, Lema and Ferrandi must advance to the November Election. I ask for your support.”

Lawler is the current president pro tem of the Narargansett Town Council and first won election to the body in 2016. She has consistently opposed the move to the former IGA/Belmont building and voted against its purchase in 2018.

Susan Cicilline Buonanno

“I proudly served on the Narragansett Town Council from 2008-2018.  I served as the Town Council President for the 2016-2018 term and successfully led the town in the purchase of the Belmont building for our new modern library located in the town’s center. Over the last decade I initiated informational workshops and town meetings to ensure the public was well informed and to ensure their voice was heard on this library project. Together, we put together a strategic plan to ensure that our town would build a new modern library in the Belmont building with additional parking. We have worked closely with The Office of Library and Information Services which strengthens, connects and empowers libraries to advance knowledge and connect communities while enriching the lives of our residents. They also provide state funding to the Maury Loontjens Library.”

“While 67.9% of the voters approved a referendum to purchase and renovate that building, a new council quickly reversed that decision in January 2019 and attempted to sell the property, Soon thereafter, I spearheaded the effort, along with other library supporters funders to form the group called Love Your Library. Our mission is to advocate for a new Narragansett Library at the Belmont building.”

Cicilline Buonanno, who stated her withdrawal from the last election in October of 2018, still narrowly missed a seat on council by less than 100 votes. As council president from 2016-2018, the 2020 challenger spearheaded efforts to purchase the former IGA/Belmont building for a new town library.

Sara Benn

“I think we need to support a library for sure, what I don’t support is a divide between community members.The previous decision to move the library to the Belmont location has caused tension amongst community members and surrounding businesses. I support a library - I don’t support closing a business to make that happen.”  

“Tensions lingering over square footage that may be shared amongst the library and Pier Liquors have surfaced. If the library gets voted to move into this space - I feel like it’s only logical for the library and liquor store to compromise over a working plan to make it happen. It seems silly to make all these efforts and not be able to come up with a working solution for both to coexist. It’s a great idea to put in the Belmont spot - but if the civility of the business and the library cannot compromise the square footage out then maybe it’s time to move forward and divorce from the decision. If we really want to love the library then we need to make honest decisions that are solely focused on making that happen. Too much emotion and previous feelings have sabotaged the growth and the trajectory of saving it.” 

Benn, a challenger in 2020, is the owner of elevate barre and cycle on Boston Neck Road. She previously worked for the University of Rhode Island. 

Richard Lema

“’The best Library this town can afford;’ this will continue to be my platform on this subject. This platform has been manipulated by many and embraced by most. There is continued interest and support is on the rise. Taxpayers are concerned and this remains my priority. It's a quality of life issue. A recent workshop was held and sponsored by myself and Jill Lawler. That workshop offered estimates and provided renewed interest to build on the grounds near the Community Center. Building an affordable, state of the art, 20,000 sq. ft library on Town owned land, with no monthly CAM fee’s, with reimbursement of 50 percent for new construction cost, and no loss in tax revenue remains the formula for this platform and offers to the residents the best library this Town can afford.”

“Furthermore, it honors the will of the people. In 2016, 69.7 percent of the voters voted ‘to finance the acquisition and renovation of real estate and/or interests.’ The ballot question did not identify Belmont. The Community Center proposal or the buildout of the current library is in support of the referendum language. My efforts and platform are not Anti-library. My platform is lower taxes and quality of life.”

Lema, a retired firefighter for the City of Providence and fisherman, is a town council incumbent first elected in 2018. Prior to being elected to that body, Lema served on the town’s recreational advisory board. Lema is a member of the current council majority that has opposed the library project in the Pier Marketplace space.

Ewa Dzwierzynski

“Yes, I absolutely support the library at the Belmont building. I am disheartened that a library could be so controversial and divisive. I will always support the will of the people. The referendum in 2016 with almost 68% of the voters approving the $5.8M bond for the library is what democracy is all about—the people have spoken. A lot of time and effort and due diligence has been spent on this initiative and we just need to move the ball past the goal line. There are a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks who do not have accurate information regarding costs and locations and misinformation is being spread. As a scientist, I analyze things based on facts and data, not emotion. I listen to experts on topics and that is what I have done to come to the determination that the Belmont building is the best location for the library.”

Dzwierzynski, a challenger for a council seat in 2020, is a pharmacist and former challenger for Rhode Island Representative in District 34 (Narragansett, South Kingstown). In 2018, Dzwierzysnki ran against Teresa Tanzi for the seat, losing by just under 600 votes.

Steven Belaus

“I voted for a new library in 2016 along with 67.9 percent of voters and I support the Belmont site because it is in the center of town and will serve as an anchor for surrounding businesses, tourists, and the community as a whole. There is only one thing stopping this from happening, and that’s the train wreck we’ve witnessed over the past two years by the TC3. I am convinced that their end game is no library, and that is exactly what this town will get if a New TC3 (Lawler, Lema, and Ferrandi) are elected. There will be no new library because their core constituents are dead set against any increase in property taxes, however modest that may be, while still being among the lowest in the state. Why else would anyone cut the library budget in half two years in a row?  

The overwhelming majority of residents are tired of hearing about the state-of-the-art library that will never be built. We would be lucky to get a bookmobile out of these three. They are not forward looking. If Narragansett does not get a new library, it will be a devastating loss for the community. Wake up Narragansett!  It’s time for a new pair of shoes.”

Belaus, a challenger in 2020, has been a substitute teacher in the Narragansett School System for the past four years and is currently working closely with U.S. Census on the 2020 Census for Rhode Island. He has attended past town council meetings in support of the library project. Prior to joining the Narragansett School System, Belaus made a career in finance and international trade.

Laurie Kelly

“As the Chair of the MLM Library, I support moving the library to the Belmont building. The Library Board has worked on this project for 12 years: vetting many different options and working with licensed library architects, a professional cost estimator, construction experts and engineers. We are confident that this project is the most cost effective choice, which will also qualify for the State of RI Grant in Aid program to reimburse up to 50 percent of the total outlay. More importantly, the people voted for this in 2016, and the will of the people should be followed by the Town Council who represent us. Most urgently today, we need a Council that will restore the funding to our current library. The TC3 have defunded the library, allocating less than half of our current payroll. Since this budget passed in June, we have lost two Full Time Employees, and there is a real threat that more of our municipal employees will lose their jobs in a time when the loss of income and healthcare puts families in crisis. It is also interesting to note that this punitive budget slashing occurred even though the MLM library continued to serve the public throughout the entire pandemic time.”

As head of the Library Board of Trustees, Kelly has spearheaded support for the public library project at the former IGA/Belmont building, frequently battling against the town council majority throughout the past term and harshly opposing cuts to the board’s budget. Kelly is a challenger in the 2020 election.

Steven Ferrandi

“I have a strong connection to libraries – both my mother and sister received Masters of Library Science Degrees from The University Of Rhode Island and were career librarians. I learned the Dewy Decimal System before the age of ten. Libraries are important to our community - from our youngest residents to our Seniors. I am bringing a fresh set of eyes to the library project with an open-minded concept to explore and evaluate all viable options. There are many variables to consider that need to be vetted out in a fiscally responsible manner to make sure the library project is right for the town. Protecting and preserving the residents’ quality of life is of primary importance. Residents First.”

Ferrandi, a challenger in 2020, is a frequent contributor at town council meetings, typically advocating for policies that would improve quality of life for residents.

Jesse Pugh

Pugh, a council incumbent who received the highest total votes in the 2018 election, has passionately advocated for the library’s relocation to the former IGA/Belmont building in the Pier Marketplace throughout the past term. Clashing frequently with the current council majority over the issue, Pugh has extensively challenged the reasoning for opposing the project, and championed the move. Pugh is a web developer and first ran for a council seat in 2018.

Meghan Murray

I love this town. This is what the people voted for in 2016. People invested time, money, and proper research to come to the conclusion that the current library location was not suitable. These are people who have knowledge and expertise on what the best library scenario would be for the town. I walked through the library the other day and can say that walking down the aisles made it clear that there is no way someone who is physically handicapped and in a wheelchair would be able to comfortably get down these aisles.”

Murray, a challenger in 2020, is a realtor and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Rhode Island. She bears no relation to council incumbent Patrick Murray.  

Winters Hames

“I am a supporter of moving the library to the ‘Belmont; building. I have spoken at numerous Town Council meetings in support of this move and have gone as far as filing a voter's initiative to halt the sale of the ‘Belmont’ building. That petition is still in court and will prevent the building from being sold to anyone until it is either heard by the court or voted on in the upcoming general election. 

This move was approved by 67.9 percent of the voters in the 2016 election and advertised as such in the Narragansett Times. This Town Council has ignored the will of the people under the guise of saving tax payers money, which in fact has cost the tax payers more money in court cost and increased building expenses. All other options were vetted and deemed too expensive or not suitable. If elected I promise this will be on the first agenda and turned over to the Library Board of Trustees to move forward. I also promise to make public all associated legal fees that have been incurred by the Town in this willful disregard of the will of the people.”

Hames, a challenger in 2020, is the Chair of the Narragansett Democratic Town Committee, a former member of the town’s recreation advisory board and has attended many council meetings to publicly support the library’s move to the former IGA/Belmont building in the Pier Marketplace. He is the owner of a food distribution business. 

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