PROVIDENCE — Despite a pending lawsuit and questions about leaving a rent-free, state-owned building in Providence, the Rhode Island Board of Elections on Tuesday voted to lease a new headquarters in Cranston for nearly $6 million over 10 years.
The board voted 5 to 1 to sign a lease with Berkeley Acquisition Corporation, which never submitted a bid to the state for its property at 2000 Plainfield Pike, in Cranston.
Board of Elections member David H. Sholes cast the lone “no” vote, saying, “I believe that the state should own its own facilities. It should be its own landlord, control its own destiny.”
Sholes said the state should have tried to obtain the former Benny’s store next door to the current board headquarters on Branch Avenue in Providence.
“It has easy access to downtown Providence and to the State House and it’s right off Route 95,” he said. “So it’s a perfect location for this facility, which is so crucial when it comes time for an election.”
But board Vice Chairman Stephen P. Erickson said leasing the Cranston site was the best available option.
“We were presented with a situation where we were paying zero but for a building that has well exceeded its useful lifetime,” he said. “It’s not just that you can see the problems here -- sometimes you can feel them when they are dripping on you.”
Board of Elections Executive Director Robert Rapoza said the new site will include warehouse space to store voting equipment that’s now kept at the Cranston Street Armory, and it will provide more space for poll-worker training, public hearings, handling mail ballots and conducting risk-limiting audits.
“This site is not adequate,” he said of the current headquarters, a former Mack Truck dealership on Branch Avenue. “This building is too small.” And the new site will have twice as much parking, he said.
Rapoza said state officials asked the board to move out of the Branch Avenue site about two years ago to make way for the medical examiner’s office. That didn’t happen, but earlier this year the Department of Administration talked about moving the board to a leased facility and possibly selling the Branch Avenue building, he said.
The Department of Administration received five bids for a new Board of Elections headquarters, but Rapoza said, “None of the locations that we visited met with our needs.”
Paolino Properties and Mutual Properties 14 Thurber LLC have filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court, accusing the state of participating in a “sham” bidding process. The suit claims the state unlawfully abandoned the bid process in order to cut a deal with Berkeley Acquisition Corporation and Dean Warehouse Services for the Cranston property.
State lawyers contend that Rhode Island law does not require the use of competitive bidding to lease real estate, and they say a section of this year’s state budget specifically authorized a lease of up to 10 years with aggregate rent of $6 million to $6.5 million for the Cranston property.
Court records indicate both Berkeley and Dean Warehouse Services are owned by Bradford Dean.
In 2017, Dean told The Providence Journal that former House Speaker Gordon D. Fox had been working for his company after Fox left federal prison on corruption charges. Board of Elections records show Dean has been a regular contributor to Rhode Island campaigns over the years.
Dean Warehouse Services President Joe Iovini attended Monday’s meeting and declined to comment afterward.
Michael L. Mineau, an attorney representing Paolino Properties and Mutual Properties, also attended.
“We are obviously disappointed that they voted to move forward with executing the lease,” he said. “I can’t say we are surprised by that action, but it seems like they’re moving ahead as quickly as possible despite the issues that are still pending in the litigation.”
Grant Dulgarian, the only member of the public to speak at the meeting, emphasized that the current Board of Elections building is on a busy bus line but the Cranston site is not on any bus line at all.
“The Board of Elections needs to be accessible,” he told the board.