WARWICK, RI — Amid the changes to daily life wrought by COVID-19 this year, the operation of government in Warwick continued, though 2020 was hardly what one could call a typical year.
As the school department navigated coronavirus-related shutdowns and distance learning, city officials pressed ahead with passing a budget and trying to maintain services to residents.
The effects of COVID-19 also affected how Warwick conducted the biannual tradition of electing public officials.
Restrictions on in-person gatherings, expansion of early voting, and a heightened focus on social media outreach meant that candidates had to use new methods and strategies to reach voters.
Paired with the overwhelming national trend toward change, those factors contributed to a significant change in Warwick’s political landscape, shown most visibly in the election of a new mayor.
Here are the top five political and government stories published by WarwickPost.com in 2020:
During its last session before COVID-19 dominated the agenda, the Warwick School Committee voted in February to adjust its personnel policy to allow attendance at graduation ceremonies without losing pay or paid time off.
Committee members also praised the response to a water main break at Toll Gate High School that left the building unusable for about a week.
The board also proposed, but did not vote on, a $10 million bond to renovate sports fields, following a meeting with the City Council where councilors voiced concern over students enrolling in private schools and suggested that improving the athletic facilities could keep them in Warwick public schools.
Voters approved a separate $56 million school improvement bond by a 74-26 percent margin on Election Day.
Our second most-read government story of the year concerned the Warwick School Committee’s decision to require masks in all schools, even as committee members questioned plans to hold in-person classes.
Although Gov. Gina Raimondo had been suggesting that the state was on-track to bring children back into school, school board members and the teachers union president agreed that student safety was their top priority.
Over the next few weeks, the school committee found itself embroiled in a public spat with Raimondo, resulting in our next top-read article:
By a 4-1 vote, and following a financial impact study, the Warwick School Committee voted in August to begin the 2020-21 school year with full distance learning.
An estimate prepared by Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci showed that it would have taken $15 million to bring schools up to the standards needed for safe in-person attendance — money the district simply didn’t have.
Warwick officials later signed a letter with seven other districts telling Raimondo that they lacked the funding to meet state requirements, leading to Raimondo’s declaration at a press conference that the local school board didn’t “do the hard work” to develop an in-person attendance plan.
After rushing the new fire contract through the city council at the end of 2019 — errors and all — Mayor Joseph Solomon repeatedly called the new pact “revenue neutral.”
But a WarwickPost.com analysis showed that, in fact, the deal would cost the city some $3.6 million from the settlement of the 2018 contract year and the decision not to appeal an arbitrator’s ruling on the Tier II pension fund, both of which were terms of the new contract.
The most concerning part of Solomon’s claim was that his own fiscal note, when interpreted correctly, estimated an additional $400,000 in salary and benefits over the life of the contract.
In what could only be described as a shock win, Independent Frank Picozzi denied Solomon a second term, handily defeating the incumbent by a 59-to-40 percent margin on Election Day 2020.
Picozzi, a local contractor known for the elaborate holiday lights displays that he sets up at his home every year, leaned heavily on social media and a positive message to earn the victory, while Solomon unsuccessfully tried to cast his uneven single term in a better light than facts justified.
Solomon’s loss, along with Council President Steve Merolla’s defeat in the General Assembly Dist. 31 primary, removed a collective four decades of experience from the top tiers of Warwick’s political structure.
On the state level, Warwick secured a valuable position in the General Assembly as longtime Rep. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23) succeeded former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston), who lost his reelection bid against Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.
Warwick Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29) maintained his post as Senate Majority Leader, giving Warwick significant clout and influence over statewide issues.
This is a test