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.”
The town denied EG News’s Access to Public Records request for the document, citing confidentiality. However, the agreement only commits Henrikson to confidentiality, not the town. In addition, the town’s refusal is in stark contrast to a statute under the state’s APRA law that states, “Settlement agreements of any legal claims against a governmental entity shall be deemed public records.”
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.