Superior Court Judge Susan E. McGuirl heard opening arguments Monday in the trial over the firing of Firefighter Jim Perry, two alleged open meetings violations and the appointment of Gayle Corrigan as acting town manager. The trial is expected to last through Wednesday.
Arguing for plaintiffs James Perry and the EG Firefighters Association, Local 2238, lawyer Elizabeth Wiens said Town Manager Gayle Corrigan fired Perry – who had been hired as a lateral transfer from Coventry Fire District in 2016 – without the recommendation of the fire chief, as required by the town charter. Corrigan notified union president Bill Perry (who is the brother of James Perry), of the dismissal via email Saturday night, Aug. 19. At the time, Acting Fire Chief Thomas Mears was on duty because Fire Chief Russell McGillivray was out on medical leave. According to Wiens, Corrigan did not consult with either Mears or McGillivray before terminating Perry.
Wiens also outlined a timetable she said showed the underlying reason for Perry’s termination was retaliation against Bill Perry for a complaint he lodged against Town Council President Sue Cienki for using threatening language against him and one other firefighter during a meeting with town and fire officials in June. Wiens said Corrigan contacted Chief McGillivray to discuss James Perry’s resume just one hour after Bill Perry filed his complaint.
In addition to James Perry’s firing Aug. 19, Bill Perry’s wife, a clerk in the East Greenwich finance department, was laid off Aug. 21.
In his opening argument, Town Solicitor David D’Agostino said the case centered on an employer’s right to terminate an employee for cause. Specifically, D’Agostino was referring to Perry’s listing on his resume that he had two firefighting certifications when in fact he had neither. While such certifications were not required as part of the application process, D’Agostino said that the town was within its rights to fire Perry since Perry had listed the certifications on his resume.
“It was a material misrepresentation of fact,” said D’Agostino.
Firefighter 1 and 2 certifications are “the bible of firefighting,” Chief McGillivray testified later on Monday – the basic knowledge needed by every firefighter to do his or her job. According to Wiens, and later corroborated by McGillivray, it was not uncommon in the 1990s, when Perry was going through training, for firefighters to receive Firefighter 1 and 2 training but to not receive an actual certificate.
How did McGillivray, who was part of the team that hired Perry, know that Perry was really certified with Firefighter 1 and 2 training if he did not have a certificate?
A 27-year firefighter would not keep his job without Firefighter 1 and 2 training, McGillivray testified.
Significantly, McGillivray said he and the rest of the hiring team (then-Town Manager Tom Coyle and then-Human Resources Director Sharon Kitchin), were aware that Perry did not have actual Firefighter 1 and 2 certificates.
Training was discussed, McGillivray said, and Perry told the interviewers that while he had Firefighter 1 and 2 training, he did not have the physical certificates.
“Did it alarm you as fire chief that [Perry] put down on paper certifications he did not have?” D’Agostino asked.
“No,” said McGillivray.
During D’Agostino’s examination of McGillivray, he asked about him about the decision to hire firefighters from other departments (i.e. lateral transfers), even though the fire department had a list of interested applicants. D’Agostino had said in his opening argument that the town’s lateral transfer process was full of “anomalies.”
McGillivray said the fire department had had a problem retaining firefighters after they had received their training. He said since 2011, the department had lost at least six newly trained firefighters to other departments and that then-Town Manager Tom Coyle suggested trying lateral transfers. Before being named town manager, Coyle had served as East Greenwich’s police chief and during his tenure in that job he had hired five former Warwick police officers who had worked out well for the town. Lateral transfers save money up front because they do not need to attend a training academy (paid for by the sponsoring town).
D’Agostino will continue his examination of McGillivray on Tuesday. In addition, Wiens said she is planning to call Captain Thomas Mears, Captain Howard Tighe of the state Fire Education and Training Coordinating Board, and James Perry. Tuesday’s session will begin at 9:30 a.m. at Kent County Courthouse.