Town Manager Gayle Corrigan said she didn’t need the recommendation of the fire chief to terminate firefighter James Perry because she held that administrative power at the time.
“In my view, I retained the administrative duties of the fire chief,” she testified in the fourth day of a Superior Court trial to determine if Perry’s firing was part of an ongoing feud with the firefighters and the Perry family. James’ brother Bill Perry is the firefighter union president. Bill Perry’s wife was laid off from a job she held in Town Hall two days after James Perry’s dismissal.
“I had an acting fire chief for operations only,” she said. “I didn’t have a fire chief.”
One of the arguments in the firefighters’ case against the town is that Corrigan did not get a recommendation to dismiss Perry from the fire chief, as required by the town charter. Fire Chief Russell McGillivray was out on medical leave the Saturday, Aug. 19, when Corrigan fired Perry. Only earlier that day, Capt. Thomas Mears had been appointed acting fire chief in an unusual Saturday morning meeting. But, Corrigan testified, Mears was only acting fire chief for operations, not for administrative duties.
McGillivray had told Corrigan on Aug. 18 that he would return to work on Aug. 21. Corrigan testified that she had no idea what McGillivray’s medical condition entailed and said she could not be sure he would be returning to work so soon. That was why, she said, the Town Council had to meet on a Saturday to approve appointment of an acting fire chief. (McGillivray returned to work on Aug. 22.)
In court Thursday, Corrigan said she fired James Perry because “he lied on his resume.” Perry testified Wednesday that he completed the training, but never received certificates.
Corrigan said she thought Perry listed “Firefighter 1 and 2” on his resume under “certifications” because he wanted to better his chances for hire.
“It’s a very common practice that people will embellish their resume,” she testified. “Of course it made Mr. Perry look better through this process.”
Statements on a resume have to “mean something,” Corrigan said. “If it doesn’t, it devalues all the other people going through the process.”
Corrigan reviewed the files on all five lateral firefighters hired in August 2016 and noticed that three of the probationary firefighters said they were Firefighter 1 and 2 certified on their resumes but did not have paper certificates on file to back that up so she asked Chief McGillivray to get those certificates, she said. Shortly after that request, McGillivray took a fall, injuring himself. He took a medical leave without getting those certificates to Corrigan. The other two firefighters handed in certificates after Perry’s dismissal.
According to earlier testimony, Firefighter 1 and 2 training is basic training for new firefighters and firefighters would be not be able to keep their jobs if they could not get that certification. Perry had been a full-time firefighter in Coventry since 1999 before taking the EG position in 2016.
Corrigan said she didn’t reach out to Perry about the certificates because she only dealt with the fire chief.
“The chief reports to me,” she said. She did not reach out to Capt. Mears – the new acting chief – that Saturday either.
Corrigan added that the process for the lateral hires in 2016 circumvented the usual hiring practice, in which applicants are taken from a list of new recruits.
“You believe solely lateral hiring is a problem,” union lawyer Elizabeth Wiens asked Corrigan.
“It’s a fact. It’s a discriminatory practice. You’re reducing the subset of people who can apply,” Corrigan responded. She noted that there had been a woman on the hiring list. There are no women firefighters on the EGFD.
Later, Corrigan admitted she had applied to be a firefighter in Providence and in Central Falls but had not passed the standard physical test for firefighters known as the PPA.
Corrigan was hired to serve as acting town manager for East Greenwich June 19, on the same day former Town Manager Tom Coyle “separated” from the town. The firefighters union is also arguing that the Town Council violated the Open Meetings Law during that meeting, since the vote to appoint Corrigan to the job was done in executive session. Council votes must be taken in open session, according to state law. In addition, the agenda for the meeting said nothing about appointing a new town manager.
Earlier Thursday, Bill Perry testified that Corrigan and the town were “clearly” retaliating against the fire department and said he had feared for his family. He noted the firing of his brother Aug. 19 and his wife Aug. 21 as well as the response to a complaint he had made against Town Council President Sue Cienki in which the town acknowledged that Cienki made an inappropriate comment to Perry and another firefighter (she threatened their genitals) but declined to take action.
During cross examination, Town Solicitor David D’Agostino asked Bill Perry about Cienki’s remarks.
“Albeit vulgar and perhaps inappropriate, was it possible those statements were made in a jocular manner?” D’Agostino said.
Perry said no. He said he waited more than a month to file the complaint because he feared it would provoke retaliation, only filing it after what he called continued “provocation” from the Town Council.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” said Perry, “making a complaint against the Town Council president. I was in fear. This is the last thing I wanted to do.”
The trial at Kent County Courthouse continues Friday at 9:30 a.m. with Corrigan still on the stand.
– Elizabeth F. McNamara