By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The town filed suit against the East Greenwich firefighters union Tuesday, looking to Superior Court to decide if the town has the right to reorganize the fire department and implement a three-platoon, 56-hour work week. The town is seeking a declaratory judgment regarding its “right to decide the organizational structure, size, and appropriate staffing levels of the East Greenwich Fire Department.”

This follows two weeks of secret negotiations between the town and the firefighters.

“Currently, the Fire Department is incurring approximately 500 hours per week on overtime, which raises serious safety concerns. Clearly, something is wrong, and we are working to address that,” said Town Council President Sue Cienki in a press release sent out at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. “The Town is asking the Court for guidance and direction to ensure East Greenwich resolves this situation in a manner that is fair and equitable to both the union and taxpayers.”

The firefighters and the town are in the middle of a three-year contract (2016 to 2019) but town officials have been complaining about the contract and what they call excessive overtime since June, when financial consultants Gayle Corrigan and Linda Dykeman (now EG’s town manager and finance director, respectively) focused on the fire department in particular as a potential budget problem area.

Three of the current town council members signed the 2016 agreement – Cienki, Vice President Sean Todd and Councilman Mark Schwager. Cienki and Todd have said they didn’t really know the implications of the contract. Officials have laid blame for the contract on former Town Manager Tom Coyle, who separated from the town in June and whom Corrigan replaced, and former Fire Chief Russ McGillivray, who was dismissed in November.

In her presentation in June, Corrigan highlighted a change in the contract that added a firefighter to each shift, going from eight per shift with a “floater” to cover absences, to nine with no floater. Without the floater, if someone on a shift was sick, on vacation or injured, that shift would have to be filled by someone working overtime. Keeping the floater wouldn’t eliminate all overtime – often there is more than one person out per shift – but it would lower it.

According to union president Bill Perry, during the recent negotiations, the union and the town came to an agreement to forestall implementation of a 56-hour work week (right now, the firefighters work a four-platoon, 42-hour work week).

“We were blindsided by reading the press release on Facebook,” Perry said Tuesday evening, noting that the town had wanted the negotiations to be “hush-hush” and kept out of social media and news outlets.

Perry said he and other union representatives sat down to negotiate with attorney Tim Cavazza (who has made a name for himself getting municipalities to force fire departments into a 56-hour work week), Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and members of the Town Council  for several hours in recent weeks, following Corrigan’s recommendation to restructure the fire department.

“We negotiated in good faith. We came to an agreement – both parties agreed,” said Perry. “Attorney Cavazza sent over a tentative agreement last week and our lawyer has been reviewing the language and making some revisions. Then, lo and behold, this happens.”

He added, “We were basically at an agreement. Nothing was signed yet. It just takes time. They understood it was going to take some time.”

The town is also asking the court to weigh in on whether or not the town has to pay elected union officials for performing services on behalf of the union. It will delay implementation of a three-platoon structure, according to the press release, “while it awaits guidance form the Superior Court and continues negotiations.”

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