The Town Council voted 4-0 to appoint Captain Thomas Mears as acting fire chief in an unusual Saturday morning meeting at Town Hall that was filled to overflowing. The action ends three days of fierce speculation and uncertainty over just who Town Manager Gayle Corrigan was planning to recommend to the Town Council.
During the brief meeting, Councilman Mark Schwager questioned the necessity of the meeting. Fire Chief Russ McGillivray went out on a medical leave Thursday (8/17) and had named Mears to cover for him during his absence, something he had done several times before, both he and Mears confirmed Saturday.
“The reason this meeting was necessary is because according to our charter, the town manager shall, it’s not a “may,” it’s not a “can,” it’s “shall” make a recommendation to the Town Council when the fire chief is out on a disability,” Town Council President Sue Cienki responded.
Cienki said McGillivray had recommended Mears for the job.
“All we’re doing is confirming his recommendation,” she said.
“By putting out an agenda and calling a Saturday morning meeting, you’ve created a tremendous amount of anxiety and insecurity,” Schwager said. “The chief is due to be back to two weeks. The charter calls for an appointment only in the event of an extended absence.”
The clause in the Charter reads: “In case of the extended absence or disability of the Fire Chief, the Town Manager shall appoint an Acting Fire Chief with the approval of the Town Council.”
After the meeting, Capt. Mears (the now acting fire chief) said he had not been told he was the person the Town Council was appointing and had never met or spoken with Town Manager Corrigan. On duty at the Fire Department Saturday morning, Mears had arrived at Town Hall only minutes before the meeting having been called there because of possible overcrowding. He said he had covered for Chief McGillivray perhaps 10 times in the past.
Town Manager Gayle Corrigan upped the ante in her battle with the East Greenwich Fire Department Thursday by calling for a special Town Council meeting Saturday morning (8/19) to appoint an “interim fire chief.” Fire Chief Russell McGillivray went out on a two-week medical leave starting Aug. 16.
The action is unusual.
Chief McGillivray took a weeklong vacation in early August and no such action was taken. Rather, as has been department practice, McGillivray deputized Captain Thomas Mears, a 20-year veteran, to lead the department in his absence. According to fire department sources, McGillivray did so again before this leave.
McGillivray chose the senior captain because there has been no deputy chief since Michael Sullivan retired from that position June 30. Corrigan decided to keep that position empty to save money to cover higher than budgeted overtime costs.
It happens that the appointment of an interim chief coincides with the end of a 12-month probation for six new firefighters on Tuesday (8/22). Two of the probationary firefighters came to the department from Central Coventry Fire District, including including David Gorman, an EG native who had been head of the Central Coventry firefighters union. Corrigan remains district manager/acting clerk of the Central Coventry Fire District.
Unless recommended by the fire chief, the town manager cannot terminate a probationary employee.
Cienki said she doesn’t know who Corrigan is planning to appoint.
Rumors suggest Corrigan is planning to appoint former Fire Chief Peter Henrikson of EG, who departed the post after signing a separation agreement with the town in 2014.
Corrigan singled out the Fire Department for budget excesses and hiring practices at her first review of town finances on June 5, while still a consultant for the town. She has since targeted Fire Department overtime budget excesses as a cause for alarm.
According to firefighter union President Bill Perry, two weeks ago Town Solicitor David D’Agostino asked if the union would consider talking about opening the firefighters’ contract with the town. The contract is not up for renewal until 2019. Perry said he told D’Agostino he would be willing to sit down with him to talk about opening the contract but that D’Agostino had not responded.
Council President Cienki also honed in on the EGFD in an email to residents Thursday, in which she highlighted the Fire Department as “unique among all town departments in that it overspends its budget every year.”
As for Saturday’s meeting, Cienki was nonchalant: “It’s nothing big. We need a chief.”
The Planning Board is in the middle of reviewing a proposal from East Greenwich developer Tom Primeau, who wants to build 16 condominiums (a collection of duplexes and triplexes) on the 5.4 acre site at 62 South Pierce Road at Cora Street.
The development, called Coggeshall Preserve, is hotly contested by neighbors. The initial public hearing on Primeau’s Comprehensive Permit application, on Aug. 2, was filled with abutting and nearby residents. After Primeau’s development team made its presentation, the public was allowed to comment. The meeting went four hours before the Planning Board finally called a halt just after 11 p.m. because there were several more people who wanted to comment on the development. The board will take up the hearing again at its meeting Sept. 20.
A Comprehensive Permit is allowed when a developer includes units deemed “affordable.” Coggeshall Preserve would include four affordable units. That enables the proposal to bypass the Zoning Board, the Town Council and, in this case, the Historic District Commission, with final approval coming from the Planning Board alone (but a Planning Board imbued with the powers of the other boards).
By state law, municipalities are supposed to have 10 percent of their housing stock in the affordable category. East Greenwich’s affordable percentage is 4.6 percent. To reach 10 percent, East Greenwich would need to add 290 units, according to HousingWorksRI. (Affordable housing is not the same as low- to moderate-income housing. Rather, for home ownership, it is calculated to serve people who make less than 120 percent of the median income for, in this case, Kent County.) The state created the Comprehensive Permit application to help fast-track developments that include affordable housing units since so many communities fall short of the 10 percent goal.
The town’s Staff Report (find it here: Planning Dept. Staff Report – 62South Pierce) notes that several of the planned residences are on federally designated floodplain areas and that “local regulations call for all lands designated as floodplain or other flood hazard area to remain in an open space or undeveloped state.” Primeau’s team is seeking a floodplain map amendment through FEMA but the staff report recommends the developer be prepared to reduce the number of units if he does not get a map amendment.
In addition, the Department of Public Works has concerns about stormwater retention structures in the flood zone. Those too would need to be relocated, the report said.
“Granting this waiver is not recommended at this time,” the report reads.
Project engineer Nicole Reilly of DiPrete Engineering said the site had different elevations and that the developer planned to raise the elevation of the site to above-floodplain levels.
The chimney is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of this house built circe 1705.
A sticking point for neighbors of 62 South Pierce is the planned demolition of the main house on the property, which was built around 1705, making it one of the oldest structures in East Greenwich. The house has a distinctive chimney that Primeau said he will replicate in a new building near the site of the original house and the plan calls for useable materials to be salvaged from the original building and used if possible in the new building.
“The site itself and the home are in derelict condition,” said William Landry, lawyer for Primeau, at the hearing Aug. 2. “We are proposing to deconstruct it, move it and rebuild it using new materials … and retaining the chimney structure.”
“The hope is the historic reconstruction will read like a structure that has always been on the street and the realigning residences will look like a neighborhood that’s developed through time around the ‘old’ house,” said project architect David Okerlund.
Structural and civil engineer Craig Carrigan inspected the building for Primeau in March. He said the house had seen too much damage and deferred maintenance through the years to be saved.
“This is one of four structures I’ve seen in my career that you can’t save,” he said. “There’s too much gone at this point to actually bring it back. I can’t figure out how to fix this one. There’s too much damage.”
But one neighbor, during public comment, took issue with those assertions.
Stephen Tyson, who lives a block away and is president of Architectural Preservation Group, said he had restored many structures in similar shape to 62 South Pierce Road.
“The structural problems that were testified to earlier, they are something I do in my sleep,” said Tyson, who has served on EG’s Historic District Commission. “To say this building is falling down is a mischaracterization. It is definitely savable and I think for a reasonable price.”
While the Historic District Commission has no purview over this project since it is applying under Comprehensive Permit guidelines, the Planning Board voted Aug. 2 to refer the project to the HDC for an advisory opinion.
Another issue for nearby residents was the lack of single-family houses and the proximity of two of the structures to houses on Taylor Circle. In particular, a driveway would be within 50 feet of Pam and Wayne Savage’s house and only a few feet from their property line (seen in the photo below, marked with string). The couple have lived in their house, which abuts the McKenna property, for 40 years.
“It was our starter house that ended up being our last house,” Wayne joked during the Planning Board’s visit to the site Aug. 5. “We took care of this part,”he said gesturing to the area beyond the staked property line. “We wanted to buy another 30 to 40 feet but they wouldn’t sell,” he said of the McKenna family. “We didn’t know this was coming.”
Most of the McKenna property is overgrown. A pond on the site is completely obscured by vegetation. Donald McKenna, who was a janitor at Meadowbrook Farm school for many years, lived in the house with his brother but recently moved to Coventry to live with his daughter after his brother’s death. The land has been in the McKenna family for decades. Some in the neighborhood remember skating on the pond in winter. And everyone knew that the McKennas allowed dumping on the site. Primeau plans extensive remediation of the property, but the state Department of Environmental Management will have to evaluate the condition of the property since there are complaints about dumping dating to the 1970s.
The property has been on the market on and off for years, with the price tag as high as $1 million at one point, according to neighbors. Primeau is buying it for $250,000. His company, Philip Ryan Homes Ltd., is also behind a proposed 43-unit development on Middle Road just east of South County Trail (across from Pine Glen) as well as Fry Brook, a condominium complex off Middle Road just west of South County Trail. Fry Brook was largely completed in 2009 but Primeau still has not built a culvert that was part of the plan. He was before the Town Council in July seeking another extension – finishing the culvert has been tied to permission to build the 43 units on Middle Road. Primeau said the culvert would be done by the end of September and the council granted him an extension.
In an interview, Primeau blamed the poor economy for his failure to complete the Fry Brook culvert, but also placed responsibility with the town.
“The development was done. The houses were built, the roads were paved, the people were happy,” he said. “It wasn’t the right time to take care of it. If the town wanted to do it so bad, they could have pulled the performance bond,” he said. “Now, they have a culvert that’s going to be 10 years newer.”
Primeau said he’s not building single family homes on the South Pierce Road site because the market isn’t calling for single family homes in that area.
“We don’t think that’s the market. We think the market’s more for young professionals and that type of buyer more than single family homes,” he said, noting that the land was “on the cusp, on the outlying edges of a single family neighborhood…. It’s in a transitional area.”
As for neighbor complaints, Primeau said that’s part of the process when you’re a developer.
“They don’t want it developed. Everybody thinks they own it when they don’t. There’s going to be screening and landscaping. We’re providing affordable housing for the community. We’re providing tasteful moderate income housing.”
The Planning Board won’t resume the Coggeshall Homes public hearing until on Wednesday, Sept. 20. The panel meets next on Wednesday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, and on that agenda is Final Plan Review of Tom Primeau’s Middle Road development. Find the agenda here.
Kristen Henrikson is back in the job of clerk for the fire department, despite having signed a settlement agreement with the town in 2016 that netted her $86,000 and no promise of resumed employment.
The Town of East Greenwich hired Henrikson, who lives in town, back into the same job even though she did not submit an application for it and others had applied for the position. Rather, Town Manager Gayle Corrigan told Town Solicitor David D’Agostino – both hired in 2017 – to contact Henrikson through her lawyer to see if she would like the job back. She said yes.
Henrikson, wife of former Fire Chief Peter Henrikson, had filed earlier complaints and lawsuits against the town that had been dismissed. Those cases revolved around her desire in 2009 to shift from her fire clerk job to that of firefighter. The union and the board of fire commissioners* both ruled against Henrikson, who had argued she did not need to take the five test-based qualifications (among them, a physical performance assessment test, a swim test and a ladder test) required for the firefighter position because she was an existing employee.
Henrikson’s first complaint, to the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights in 2009, was dismissed for “no probable cause.” She went on to sue the town and other entities, including the firefighters union (of which she was a member) in both Superior Court and Federal Court. The Superior Court case was rejected. The federal court case was dismissed in 2015,after the judge, siding with the town, said her case had no legal merit. (Find that decision here: Henrikson Decision.)
Henrikson filed the original complaint while John McKenna was fire chief. In an added twist, Kristen Henrikson’s husband Peter Henrikson became chief in 2010 and served in that position until 2013, with her lawsuit pending during that time. She left her job because of an “on-duty injury” in 2014 and did not return to her position (she continued to be paid as if on the job, which is stipulated in the firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement). Instead, the town negotiated a settlement with Henrikson, effective June 30, 2016.
According to union President Bill Perry, the fire clerk job remained open after the settlement through an arrangement with then-Town Manager Tom Coyle. Noting that fire fighter overtime costs were higher than budgeted, Coyle asked Perry to allow the clerk position to remain vacant. Perry said he signed a memorandum of agreement with Coyle allowing the town to keep the position vacant for six months. Perry said he signed a second MOA in January to extend the vacancy an additional six months.
Coyle posted the fire clerk job in April and received some applications. However that hiring process was put on hold in June when the town entered into a separation agreement with Coyle. Coyle was replaced as town manager by Gayle Corrigan on June 19.
According to Corrigan, asking Henrikson if she wanted to come back as fire clerk was the right thing to do.
“When we looked through the documents, it was the right thing, almost an ethical thing,” Corrigan said in a July interview. “What the prior administration had done was not quite right and they left this … in other words, she would have the right of first refusal.”
“She absolutely did not have the right of first refusal,” said lawyer (and EG resident) Elizabeth Wiens, who represents the firefighters union. “In fact, she waived any and all rights she had by signing the separation agreement…. It’s right in the agreement.”
Despite this, the document was obtained by EG News (and can be seen here: Henrikson Separation Agreement). The clause Wiens was referring to in which Henrikson waived her right to the clerk job reads:
3.1 Employee unconditionally releases and forever discharges Employer, and all Employer’s officers, elected officials, appointed officials, agents, employees, attorneys, insurers, and representatives … from all liabilities and obligations under federal, state and local statutes or laws … relating in any way to this employment, termination thereof or communication concerning the circumstances of such termination to third parties.
Corrigan said Coyle left the door open for Henrikson.
“If you’re going to settle with her, then just settle with her, not try to lay her off for lack of work. You should be really honest with people. It’s not working out. Let’s talk about a settlement.”
But, according to the agreement, Henrikson did in fact receive a settlement. Under the union’s collective bargaining agreement, when an employee leaves, he or she is eligible for vacation pay only. In the agreement, however, in addition to vacation buyback pay of $11,933, Henrikson received $31,622 in salary, $10,319 in sick leave and $4,477 in longevity pay, as well as a pension buy out of $27,300. In other words, Henrikson received an additional payment of $73,720 to vacate the job she now holds again.
– Elizabeth F. McNamara
* The East Greenwich Fire Department was formerly known as the East Greenwich Fire District – a separate municipal entity that was merged with the town in 2013.
Two more school administrators submitted their resignations last week, bringing to four the number of vacancies in top positions in the East Greenwich public schools just weeks from the start of the new school year. Eldredge Principal Dom Giuisti and EGHS vice principal Tim Chace both announced last week they have taken jobs in Coventry. They join former Director of Student Services Brad Wilson there, who resigned in June. Cheryl Vaughn, who had been principal of Frenchtown Elementary for 13 years, has taken a job in Cumberland.
“We are immediately posting the positions and the hope is to find good candidates and to get people in place if not on the first day of school then shortly thereafter,” said School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark. Interviews have been taking place for both the Frenchtown job and the director of student services position and Mark said she hopes to be able to vote to fill those positions at a special meeting Friday at 8 a.m.
“Everybody’s who leaving has left us in a good place in terms of getting the new year started,” Mark said. “Better for it to happen now than to happen three weeks from now.”
As to why so many administrators have decided to leave now, Mark said she wasn’t sure but suggested that recent budget challenges may have played a role.
“I’m very concerned that the last six months in East Greenwich has just tipped things and has caused people to make the decisions they’ve made,” Mark said. “We haven’t always been able to pay top dollar but East Greenwich has always been a great place to work.”
With the situation less certain, she said, perhaps “there were other opportunities out there and they decided to seize them.”
On a more positive note, the teachers union voted last week to end “work to rule,” a protest tactic that had teachers refusing to take part in any activities outside the exact hours of the school day.
“I have not officially been notified that work to rule has been called off,” said Mark. “I was delighted to read about it on Facebook. If it’s true, then, yay! I’m really looking forward to a fresh start and working with the teachers to make sure it’s a great year.”
Last year was tough, Mark said, acknowledging the difficult teacher contract negotiations.
“But at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team. I just really appreciate that they are going to go into the new year with a fresh start.”
The Town Council waded into one of the trickier issues facing East Greenwich at its meeting Monday night (8/7/17) – parking on Main Street, in particular valet parking. While the challenge may have been a welcome respite from recent meetings where questions of budget and consolidation and resident discontent had dominated, those issues did not disappear. In particular, during public comment, residents continued to question everything from possible open meeting violations to the single bid for consulting services for a firm whose principals ended up with the town manager and town finance director jobs.
But, for a few brief minutes, the Town Council was able to immerse itself in regular town stuff, i.e. parking.
Earlier this year, Councilors Sean Todd and Andy Deutsch had met with restaurant owners and valet parking services to see if they could resolve frequent complaints from both residents and some businesses on Main Street about the valet parking services used by several restaurants on Main Street.
Parking has long been an issue on Main Street. New businesses of any type hoping to open on Main Street must determine if they have enough parking spaces for their clientele or, if not, seek a parking variance. Some restaurants, Besos for instance, has its own lot and plenty of parking. Other restaurants, among them Rasa and Rocco’s, do not have lots. All three eateries rely on valet parking, but where exactly to Rasa and Rocco’s park their cars?
That’s what Todd and Deutsch were hoping to clarify, looking to valet company representatives to produce a map of parking areas for each restaurant. In addition, they want valet workers to wear name tags. There weren’t a lot of answers from the one valet company representative at Monday’s meeting.
During public comment, resident Caryn Corenthal commented that she loved dining on Main Street but was disappointed when she drove up to Rocco’s recently and the valet worker took her car and parked it across the street rather than away from Main Street.
“I could have done that,” she said. “We have definitely a parking problem in East Greenwich. If a restaurant does not have a lot, they shouldn’t have valet. There’s a lot of congestion at a couple of places. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
After the meeting, Corenthal said she was concerned about restaurants like Frank & John’s pizzeria, which does not use valet parking and relies on having a couple of parking spaces in front for customers who want to pick up pizza to go.
“Some residents have asked us to get rid of valet all together. I’m not in favor of that,” said Todd. “We have to have some kind of plan in place,” he acknowledged.
During council comments, Councilman Mark Schwager again questioned recent council actions, this time, an invoice from consulting firm Providence Analytics for Gayle Corrigan’s town manager services.
“On June 19, the Town Council held an executive session,” he said. ” … We voted 3 to 1 to agree a separation agreement with the current town manager at the time and we also voted 3 to 1 to appoint Gayle Corrigan as the acting town manager. So I was surprised and concerned to see an invoice for town manager services from June 19 … through June 30 from Providence Analytics. It’s unclear how this was billed by Providence Analytics as this was not discussed in executive session. It was also unclear who had the authority to assign payment for these invoices. So, I would like to request these issues be revisited in open session … to clarify these questions.”
The focus remained on the Town Council’s recent actions during public comment, when resident Karen Boegemann called into question the bidding process for the consultant to review the school department’s books. Only one bid was accepted – from Providence Analytics, the company owned and operated by the now-Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and now-Finance Director Linda Dykeman.
Boegemann noted that there were only two bids submitted for the yearly audit so the Town Council asked that the request for proposal (RFP) be recirculated to gain more bids. A third bid was submitted and one company was chosen out of the three.
“That was fair. That’s what we would expect. . . . I’d like to know why there wasn’t another RFP sent out for additional bids to compare [with the Providence Analytics bid]? I don’t understand,” she said.
Boegemann also said Corrigan and Dykeman were involved in a new venture, Lozen Associates, despite Corrigan’s having said in a story here that she was closing out her work involvement with Central Coventry Fire District and would not be seeking any new consulting work. The website includes praise for Dykeman from Christine Spagnoli, who currently works with Linda at the East Greenwich School Department, but is listed on the Lozen website as the finance director for the Town of East Greenwich.
Resident Elizabeth Wiens, a labor lawyer who represents the EG firefighters, said the Town Council had violated the open meetings law at least twice recently. First, she said, the agenda for the Town Council’s executive session on June 19 mentioned a job performance review but did not mention naming a new town manager, as they did that day after accepting former Town Manager Tom Coyle’s “separation” agreement. Wiens also noted that there was no mention of job performance reviews on the agenda for the council’s June 26 executive session, where they voted to lay off three employees.
Resident and EG Farmers Market organizer Tracie Truesdell took Councilman Nino Granatiero to task for alluding to former manager Coyle in his praise of Corrigan’s report to the council.
During Council Comments, Granatiero said, “In the past the town manager’s report lasted about two minutes. It was about how many cats we saved in trees … for the two weeks prior to the meeting. And tonight we heard a lengthy town manager’s report. So, Gayle, thanks digging into some issues … and just in general digging into meaty issues more than in the past.”
“This is tough. We’ve been friendly for close to a decade,” said Truesdell to Granatiero. “You have said you do not want personnel comments. But your last comment – about the previous town manager reporting on getting cats out of trees – I found it extremely disrespectful to his 30 years of service to this town.… and I think you owe this room an apology.”
Granatiero said he would not apologize but did not mean any disrespect.
Meanwhile, Council President Sue Cienki said the council would move ahead with a search process for a permanent town manager. She tasked each council member to come to the next meeting with the name of one person to sit on the search committee. Cienki also said she is committed to retaining public comment at Town Council meetings.
I sent this letter to the Town Council regarding last night’s Town Council meeting (8/7/17). I’d like to say that to have certain discussions that do not involve the departments responsible to me was inappropriate.
As a member of the Zoning Board, I am wondering why a couple of members of the Town Council are looking at the parking situation downtown and didn’t invite or solicit advice from the planning or assistant planning director or the zoning official? They are well aware of the parking issues and the fact that most restaurants have, as part of their use variance, a requirement to show that they had adequate parking for their patrons and staff. In other words, each restaurant had to show where they had secured parking, whether they were using a valet or not. There are many documented discussions regarding parking downtown. To have that discussion in council while no members of the planning/zoning staff were asked for their opinions or recommendations was irresponsible. Furthermore, there has been discussion at both the Zoning Board and Planning Board levels that East Greenwich has probably hit the maximum number of restaurants it can handle for its downtown area that allows for safety and quality of life for Hill & Harbor residents and non-restaurant businesses.
The discussion regarding HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and affordable housing is also something the Planning Department should have weighed in on. Both the Planning Department and the local director of CDBG [Community Development Block Grants] could have easily explained how the requirements work and how much monies are allocated and how. Other then Ms. Corrigan’s opinion, we had no healthy discussion of how CDBG works and how it became $300,000 in the hole. I believe that both HUD and the state audit the account. I am not aware that CDBG was under investigation. Recently the Town Council passed an affordable housing resolution. Members should be aware, therefore, that there is requirement for each town to reach a goal of 15 percent affordable housing otherwise the state could allow affordable housing developments without input from the town. It’s in our best interest to keep CDBG to continue to receive those grants especially since East Greenwich has still a way to go in order to reach that 15 percent goal.
Patty Harwood, a chairwoman of EG’s Special Education Advisory Committee, addressed the School Committee during public comment last Tuesday (in video above, her comment begins at 3:10), seeking more information about a special education “audit” referred to by the Town Council at its meeting July 24. She also decried the apparent rush to lower special education spending as outlined in the agreement signed with interim school Finance Director Linda Dykeman.
“It seems ill timed to be bringing this kind of stuff up having no director of student services,” said Harwood. Brad Wilson, EG’s former director of student services, resigned in May to take a job in Coventry. “I’m very concerned who could speak to the details of what the costs of the special budget are and which students might be impacted by any imposted cuts,” she said. “I was disheartened to hear that the priority for special ed was to target budget cuts rather than to address the staggering achievement gap that continues to exist for students with IEPs.”
In particular, Harwood was referring to the letter of agreement between Dykeman and the school department that includes this bullet point:
“Work with Superintendent and Director of Pupil Personnel [sic] to lower SPED costs (high cost SPED reimbursement analysis, billing review).”
“We’ve really lost sight of the strategic plan that was worked on, painstakingly worked on and crafted. I just don’t see that anyone is really looking at curriculum,” she said. “I’m feeling a sense of panic for our students who struggle and I’m really feeling we’re getting off course. It’s frightening for parents.”
Supt. Victor Mercurio said he and the School Committee were in the process of interviewing candidates for the special ed director position.
As for the audit, it is a RIDE (state Department of Education) requirement, he said, that takes place every few years. It will take place in April 2018.
“The first step is to have a director of student services in place and then go from there,” he said. “The work we do as a district has to first and foremost meet the needs of the students.”
Mercurio said the sentence in Dykeman’s employment agreement had to do with Medicaid reimbursements – some special education students have Medicaid benefits and some school-supplied services can be billed to Medicaid.
He said the issue was, “Are we getting as much as we could there?”
In May, Providence Analytics – made up of now-Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and now-Finance Director Linda Dykeman – had looked at special education spending over a four-year average and called for cutting the fiscal year 2018 special ed budget. The Town Council has promised to give more money to the schools if special education costs exceed that lower number.
Two aspects of the “One Town” consolidation effort were on the School Committee’s agenda Tuesday night – a review of the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the Town Council and the School Committee memorializing the town’s new financial commitments, and a discussion about the rollout of the consolidation itself, including the timeline, job descriptions for consolidated positions, and an organizational chart for who staff will report to.
School officials continue to argue that consolidation between two separate elected bodies is challenging and will take time, despite the town’s initial fast action June 30 when Town Manager Gayle Corrigan laid off three town employees and said in a memo that two school employees were now in consolidated positions, without first getting agreement from the School Committee.
That agreement still has not been given and the school department employees continue to work in their school jobs*. But the School Committee did decide Tuesday night to turn the consolidation particulars over to their personnel subcommittee and take them off the shoulders of Supt. Victor Mercurio, in acknowledgement of his current considerable workload. In addition to the start of school less than four weeks away, the district is also down a special ed director and a principal at Frenchtown Elementary.
Committeewoman Lori McEwen, who chairs the personnel subcommittee, was blunt in her assessment of the organizational chart presented July 24, saying she could not sign off on an organization chart that has a dotted line between the superintendent and the finance director but a solid line between the town manager and the finance director.
That turned the discussion to matrix managing, the method behind the chart that was lauded by Councilman Nino Granatiero July 24 for how well it worked in business. Matrix management is the practice of managing individuals with more than one reporting line, for instance, someone in sales who works under a district manager but reports to the regional manager. School officials question how that can work when there are two completely different elected bodies sharing the same employee.
Mercurio said in his research on matrix management, he had not found a model that depicted such an arrangement.
As for the dotted and solid line reporting structure, “some of the best practices are to ban the dotted/solid line approach,” said School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark, referring to an article from the Harvard Business Review Mercurio had shared.
Committeewoman Yan Sun again questioned the speedy timeline for the consolidation and, after the meeting, Committeeman Matt Plain said that consolidation had to be done carefully.
“Figuring out the job descriptions and who’s going to evaluate and who’s going to supervise … that shouldn’t be done in haste,” Plain said.
The discussion over the revised MOA hinged largely on what would happen when the School Committee needed to ask for more money from the town, which has promised to reserve $500,000 for special education cost increases instead of funding the School Committee as it requested.
“The Town Council must appropriate the amount of money to meet our legal and contractual obligations,” said Plain.
“If we decide that we need more, we make that presentation to the Town Council and there’s no discussion,” she said.
Committeeman Jeff Dronzek was wary the town would give over any additional money.
“I don’t have a high level of trust on this. This is the first time we’d done this.”
Plain said if the Town Council were to respond to a request by saying, “Let’s see how your school year goes,” the School Committee could then explore legal options.
He also had a problem with the inclusion in the MOA of “One Town,” the phrase adopted by the Town Council to describe the town-school consolidation.
The clause under debate was a new one sought by Town Solicitor David D’Agostino:
“Whereas, the Council and Committee agree to work collaboratively to further the One Town approach, which is partially codified in the budget appropriation as part of the FY18 budget as approved by the Council and the Committee …”
Mark said she accepted the new clause because of what she saw as the importance of enshrining the idea of working collaboratively.
But McEwen also objected to the “One Town” inclusion.
“If the Town Council were trying to further a ‘One Town’ approach they would have given us the appropriation we asked for,” she said, referring to the 4 percent funding increase the School Committee had requested in April. “I would be in favor of removing that term of art.”
Plain argued including the phrase was unnecessarily confusing since it could mean different things to different people. As for working collaboratively, “that’s not a bad idea but that’s not what this MOA was about.”
Rather, the MOA was intended to outline in a formal document exactly what expenses the town will cover.
In the end, the School Committee decided to strike the new clause completely, and to remove all uses of “One Town,” from the MOA.
As for the town’s assuming the school department’s $45,000 sewer bill (the sewers are a town service), that is not included in the MOA.
“D’Agostino could not commit to that at this point so we are leaving it for now,” said Oliverio.
– Elizabeth F. McNamara
* Linda Dykeman, who was named by Corrigan to serve as consolidated finance director, had already been working for the EGSD for 10 hours a week, sharing that job with another person while the School Committee was going to conduct a search for a permanent director of administration. Dykeman continues to give 10 hours of her week to the school department and has assumed the duties of the town’s finance director for the other 30 hours a week.
You can watch videos of the entire School Committee meeting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpkQPG6qKUU.
Town Council President Sue Cienki has said a search for a permanent town manager will take place but has offered no timeline.
For her part, Corrigan said she is too busy to even consider that position.
“Right now I’m just focused on streamlining operations here and the things that need to happen,” she said in a recent interview. “They haven’t come out with a posting yet. When they do, I’ll make my decision then. Right now, I don’t really have the time to think about that.”
Corrigan acknowledged East Greenwich’s finances are in good shape – “East Greenwich is not like Central Falls,” – but said she brings expertise in finance to the job.
“If you look back at some of the contracts, the fire contract, some of the things that were in that contract. They existed but they hadn’t really been analyzed,” she said. “Someone has to have a background, has to understand financially what’s happening.”
Corrigan said she was not worried about the appearance of both she and Dykeman getting top municipal jobs after being hired as consultants.
“In terms of being consultants, we’re both CPAs. I have an MBA. It’s a common practice,” she said.
Corrigan and her husband, who is Russian, live in Cowesett with their two children. They met and married while she was working in Russia and they moved to the U.S. in 2003. Corrigan grew up in Cranston and is a graduate of Cranston East but decided on Cowesett after her parents moved to the area. After 14 years as a close neighbor, she said she’s very familiar with East Greenwich and does a lot of her shopping here. Rasa, on Main Street, is a favorite restaurant, she said.
Corrigan, who earned an MBA from Boston University and eventually became a CPA, went to work for Senesco Marine, in Quonset, from 2004 to 2010. According to a document from the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights published by Parker Gavigan at NBC 10 in 2012, Corrigan was fired from her job at Senesco for “violating her fiduciary duties.” The document alleges Corrigan, while an officer of Senesco, ran a staff leasing company that provided contract labor to the company, at a profit to her and without Senesco’s knowledge. (Corrigan did not respond to a request for a comment about past or ongoing litigation.)
Corrigan met East Greenwich resident and former R.I. Supreme Court Judge Bob Flanders, during her tenure at Senesco. After Flanders was named receiver of the financially troubled Central Falls, he hired Corrigan to serve as his chief of staff. She spent nearly two years there, during which time Central Falls’ went into bankruptcy, union contracts were renegotiated, pensions were cut and the city emerged from bankruptcy. Corrigan went on to serve as deputy director at Rhode Island Housing. That job came in two parts: Corrigan was hired in May 2013, then fired in December 2013; she sued for wrongful termination, then got rehired in May 2014 in return for dropping her suit. She left RI Housing a year later and opened a consulting practice. Among her clients, most famously, has been Central Coventry Fire District, where she remains district manager/acting clerk.
Corrigan said she’s at the “tail end” of her work for CCFD.
“They had a $4.5 million deficit in March 2016. My job was to go through all of that and, from a financial and operational point of view, the last audit we had, we went from a $4.5 million deficit and a $5.4 million debt load to zero debt and a $558,000 deficit,” she said. “That’s pretty much it.”
Corrigan said her responsibilities at CCFD will not interfere with her work for East Greenwich, that she will “absolutely” be able to give as much time as needed to East Greenwich. In addition, she said, she has no outside consulting jobs now and “I’m not looking for new clients.”
Corrigan said she doesn’t view running the Town of East Greenwich as if it were a business but that there are things to be learned from business.
“It’s very different from business. There are a lot of barriers to it. You’re not going to take over the City of Warwick,” she said with a laugh. “You’re not expanding. You’re limited. There are a lot of laws. There’s a lot of regulations. There’s contracts. There’s CBAs [collective bargaining agreements]. In a business, you can just say, let’s forget that pension and go out of business. We can’t do that. What I try to do is put in some good accounting best practices.”
But Corrigan said those pension costs, for instance, can “crowd out” other things a municipality would like to spend money on, like infrastructure, so it was important to do what she could to keep costs down.
Corrigan defended the manner in which she laid off* three town employees June 30, pushing back in particular on former Finance Director Kristin Benoit’s claim she learned she was fired via an email from the town about the restructuring.
“We did contact her and she didn’t answer her phone,” Corrigan said. “There were some intervening circumstances that she knew and that’s why she wasn’t answering the phone. She can have her story. We have ours.”
She disputed that things could have been handled better – for instance, by allowing employees a chance to apply for consolidated or new positions.
“It was a very tough 10 days,” she said of her first days on the job. “It’s tough when you start any new job, especially coming after a very well-like town manager. I’m going to say, we handled things the best we could. I don’t think I could have handled them any better, given the circumstances.”
When asked about negative responses by residents to some of her actions, she said it was hard.
“It’s never fun to be personally attacked. I understand their frustrations, but I also understand whenever you’re having discussions about looking at things a different way, for instance, in terms of how we evaluate department heads, there’s always going to be dissension,” she said. “I feel it’s a healthy part of the process.”
For his part, Town Council Vice President Sean Todd said he was happy with the job Corrigan was doing and not concerned with her lawsuits against past employers or affiliations.
“We asked her and she certainly has her own side to these stories,” Todd said about Corrigan’s suits against Senesco, Rhode Island Housing and, most recently, the YMCA (where she served as board chair in 2016 – here’s a copy of her complaint, obtained by NBC10 WJAR). “I was comfortable with her response to all of it…. There are always two sides to the story.”
He continued, “She is absolutely the right person for the job. She’s done a lot already.”
Todd declined to elaborate but said there would be information forthcoming.
“I think this is one of the greatest communities in the state,” he said, “and we have a situation where we ought to be paying for talent.”
“Her full-time job is righting the fiscal ship of East Greenwich,” he said. “This is the truth – the Town of East Greenwich has a spending problem.”
“She’s got a good track record in helping communities get to a better place,” said Bob Flanders, her former boss in Central Falls. “I think she brings a very solid base of knowledge about how a municipal government functions and she has a wealth of experience now in dealing wth difficult situations.”
As for whether or not East Greenwich needs a turnaround specialist is “irrelevant,” Flanders said. “The question is, can good management achieve efficiencies and … can a good manager and a good analysts help in that way. If they are going to have a manager that can help them do that, that’s a good thing.”
When asked if Flanders thought East Greenwich should be concerned about Corrigan’s litigious past, he said no.
“She’s proven herself over and over again as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Having worked with her, I’m satisfied she is more than capable for the job.”
– Elizabeth F. McNamara
* “Laid off” replaces “fired” in the original version.