By Elizabeth F. McNamara
It was a tale of two towns Monday night, when more than 500 people attended the Town Council meeting to witness their vote on Gayle Corrigan as town manager after Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl ruled Nov. 8 that Corrigan’s original appointment June 19 was null and void because the council did not comply with the Open Meetings Act.
The council was to have voted on Corrigan last Tuesday (11/14) but they failed to secure a large enough venue. Now, in the auditorium at East Greenwich High School (capacity 700+), the council voted 3-2 in favor of Corrigan’s appointment, a decision that was greeted by boos from the largely disapproving crowd. Councilor Andy Deutsch joined Councilman Mark Schwager in voting against Corrigan’s appointment, switching from his yes vote last June. Councilman Nino Granatiero, Council President Sue Cienki and Vice President Sean Todd all voted in favor of Corrigan.
During discussion before the vote, Cienki argued that Corrigan had found financial issues that the town could not ignore and that, despite Corrigan’s failings, it was important to stay the course.
“Is she an unpopular character? Sure. But it’s not about her. These issues are not going away,” Cienki said, referring to financial problems Corrigan is said to have uncovered.
Councilman Schwager and, later, many in the audience, argued that it wasn’t about fixing financial wrongs – if there were wrongs, they should be fixed. Rather it was about Corrigan’s poor management skills and the council’s unwillingness to address the wrongs highlighted by Judge McGuirl.
“Whatever her merits or demerits, Ms. Corrigan has become the focus of attention. She has become a lightening rod. I don’t think she can be effective in this position. We need to rebuild the trust and support of the community and the people in this room,” Schwager said to loud applause.
Councilman Todd had a different view.
“We’re here tonight to clean up some procedural errors that Judge McGuirl pointed out,” he said, then he pivoted to an email sent out by Cienki Friday evening that presented a series of failings from prior town administrators. “We wanted Gayle to come here to help us with these fiscal issues. In the last 15 years … the tax levy when from $29.7 million to $55 million…. We will hit $100 million in 15 years. I ran for office to try to stop this madness.”
Schwager, alternatively, called Cienki’s email “reckless” and said it opened the town up to more lawsuits. (The email placed the blame for myriad stated financial problems on former Town Manager Tom Coyle, whose forced departure June 19 made way for Corrigan, and former Fire Chief Russell McGillivray, who was dismissed in October.)
“Your action was irresponsible,” said Schwager.
“Everything in there was factual,” countered Cienki. When it came time to vote on Corrigan’s appointment, Deutsch fell in with Schwager.
After the meeting, Deutsch said he voted against Corrigan this time because “I feel like it was the right thing to do.” He had said during the meeting he wanted the council to put a timeline on Corrigan’s appointment. Cienki disagreed, saying a specific date was not necessary because Corrigan was an “at-will” employee. Councilman Granatiero said the search for a new town manager was finally ready to go.
“Why don’t we just follow the plan, do the search, do it properly. The recruitment profile is completed. We’re ready to go to market with the ad. We’ve got a date for submission for resumes,” he said.
The council also voted on Corrigan’s contract, which passed 4-1, with Schwager opposing. The council then voted on a series of actions taken by Corrigan and voted on by the council in June, October and November, including the dismissal of town employees and hiring of new employees in late June (4-1, Schwager opposing) and the hiring of a search firm to look for a new fire chief in October (4-1, Schwager opposing). [Ed. Note: an earlier version of this story recorded that vote incorrectly.]
The agenda did not include public comment. President Cienki said before the meeting that public comment had not been included because this was a special session and public comment wasn’t usually allowed for such meetings. But as soon as the meeting started, Councilman Schwager proposed adding public comment and the council voted 5-0 in favor. For the majority on the council, that was the only applause they got all night.
Nineteen people got up to speak during public comment, including brand new East Greenwich resident Bill Perry, president of the EG firefighters union. He and his family just moved into a house on Pardons Wood Lane. Perry has said the firefighters union would sit down with the town but that some people have accused the union of refusing to meet with the town.
“I’ve heard through the grapevine that supposedly we’ve never requested meetings. Mr. D’Agostino, this question’s for you … have we requested through you to open up meetings?” Perry asked Town Solicitor David D’Agostino. “Yes,” D’Agostino replied after a pause.
Jeff Gladstone told the council he only came to the meeting after reading Judge McGuirl’s 73-page ruling. The ruling, he said, made clear that Corrigan’s actions were wrong.
“You followed her down the wrong road. Do the right thing. The people here, we want you to be successful. But in an open and honest fashion,” Gladstone said.
Matt Stark said the council’s desire to make fast decisions had resulted in a loss of credibility.
“If you have a valid case, you need to bring more people into the discussion to make it more credible,” said Stark.
Lisa Sussman said meetings like this did not provide for real dialogue and she asked that the council put on a town forum. Cienki said after the meeting that she would like to do that.
Afterwards, Schwager expressed his disappointment with the meeting’s outcome.
“I think we had the opportunity, especially given the Superior Court opinion, to really change course. We had the information. We had the public outcry. We had the opportunity to put in a new town manager. Unfortunately, we didn’t take advantage of that.”
For Cienki, there wasn’t really a choice.
“I think not keeping Gayle would have put us into more chaos. We’re in the middle of an audit that she’s in charge of. Our financial director also is in charge of the schools too, so to lose both of our financial managers at this time would be detrimental,” she said. Financial Director Linda Dykeman was not on the agenda tonight, but Corrigan and Dykeman were hired within days of each other and Dykeman has been a consulting colleague of Corrigan’s. “We hear people that they wanted transparency and they wanted a more open process. So we’re going to do that,” Cienki said.
As for the lack of residents in attendance who supported Corrigan and Cienki’s agenda, the Town Council president said that didn’t disappoint her.
“A lot of these people work and they have other stuff to do,” she said. “They believe in what we’re doing. People that are happy, they’re not going to come here to complain. They’re not going to come here to make comments. I’m not ever disappointed when people have other things to do in their life…. I’m happy that these people wanted to come because I’m listening to them. I’m listening to everybody. But we had a decision to make and that’s the Town Council’s decision.”
Corrigan did not attend Monday’s meeting.
After the meeting, lawyer for the firefighters and EG resident Liz Wiens said Judge McGuirl had given her until Monday to file a complaint over Monday night’s proceedings.