By Elizabeth F. McNamara
With every seat taken and many people standing, Town Council President Sue Cienki cancelled the special session scheduled for Tuesday night, saying that they needed a larger venue after 50 to 60 people were not able to get into the meeting at Swift Community Center by the 7 p.m. start. The Town Council was to vote on the appointment of Gayle Corrigan as town manager in response to a ruling by Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl last week that nullified her earlier appointment June 19.
Earlier Tuesday, McGuirl had granted the town one more week – until Nov. 21 – to comply with the ruling. While the original agenda had listed a vote on Corrigan’s appointment and votes to ratify her contract and her actions since June 19, Town Solicitor David D’Agostino said concerns raised by a letter from Access RI Tuesday morning about the vagueness of that third vote prompted him to recommend tabling ratifying Corrigan’s previous actions until they were more clearly defined. So Tuesday night was only going to be the vote on Corrigan and, if that passed, on her contract. The judge’s one-week extension, however, gives the council cover to reschedule the meeting and hold it in a larger venue.
“I am disappointed,” said Councilman Mark Schwager. “I was ready. The capacity issue possibly could have been addressed earlier but that wasn’t my call. Generally that decision is made by the town manager and the Town Council president. I know there had been discussions and a number of citizens had brought up holding the meeting at a larger venue. The high school will allow a much bigger crowd. You have to open it up to the community.”
Schwager arrived at Swift shortly before 7 p.m. and many people stood and clapped loudly when they saw him walk in. The lone Democrat on the council, Schwager has consistently questioned actions taken by the council and by Corrigan, including the same issues Judge McGuirl highlighted in her ruling as incorrect.
Swift Community Center has a capacity of 253 people. By 6:20 p.m. Tuesday, there were more than 100 people standing outside Swift waiting for the 6:30 open time. By 6:50, nearly every seat inside was full but Cienki said she was not concerned some people would not be able to get in. “Look,” she said, indicating to the crowd before her, “everybody’s here. We’re good.”
When it became clear there were dozens of people outside who were not allowed to enter because the building was at capacity, Cienki did an about face, announcing the meeting was cancelled and would be held within the next week at East Greenwich High School.
Cienki said she had not earlier considered holding the meeting at a larger venue, such as the auditorium at East Greenwich High School (capacity 700) or the cafetorium at Cole Middle School (capacity 400). For her part, Corrigan said although she had discussed meeting logistics issues with Police Chief Steve Brown, capacity issues had not come up. She added that the meeting was the Town Council’s so she deferred to the council on such things as meeting location.
Among those who gained entry to Swift were about 14 EG firefighters who do not live in town. Firefighter union president Bill Perry said those firefighters gave up their seats for residents after it became clear there were more people who wanted to get in than would be allowed. Perry himself remained, having closed on his new house in East Greenwich on Monday. He and his family had been living in Cranston.
Before the meeting, some residents were handing out “EG Taxpayer” name tags for those who lived in East Greenwich. Others were handing out red and green pieces of paper as a way to respond to the lack of public comment on the meeting agenda. Those who took the papers were told to hold up the red sheets for things they disagreed with and green for those they agreed with as a way to silently register their opinions. Public comment at Town Council meetings is not required by law but traditionally has been allowed at council meetings.
Councilman Schwager said afterwards he hoped Cienki would include public comment at the rescheduled meeting.
“As Superior Court Judge McGuirl stated, this is the most important decision that a council undertakes. Given the importance of the decision and also the engagement of the community, residents should be able to give their input to the council,” he said.
Schwager added he was not optimistic that his colleagues on the council would have a change of mind about Corrigan by the time of the rescheduled meeting.
“My impression is the majority members of the council are resolute about moving forward [with Corrigan],” he said after the meeting. He said just as he did not vote for Corrigan June 19, he will not be voting for her at the rescheduled meeting.
“At some point they have to take into account the public sentiment,” Schwager said about his colleagues. “They really dismissed the Superior Court decision. They did not take it to heart. They are circling the wagons and hoping that the reward down the road will vindicate them. It’s an ‘ends justify the means’ situation. Unfortunately, the means has been so disruptive. I’m not sure what the ends are, but by the time you get there, you’ll have a very divided and damaged community.”
Following the meeting, more than 100 people moved to the Varnum Armory on Main Street where the EG Town Democratic Committee held what it called a “Turn The Lights Back On” public forum, where residents were invited to comment to whichever Town Council members attended as if it were public comment at the meeting. Councilman Schwager was the only member to attend.