By Elizabeth F. McNamara
Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl issued a scathing ruling Wednesday against the Town of East Greenwich, accusing the Town Council of a pattern of noncompliance with the Open Meetings Act and rendering “null and void” the appointment of Gayle Corrigan as town manager. In addition, McGuirl overturned Corrigan’s firing of firefighter James Perry and ordered that he be reinstated. Also, McGuirl fined the town $1,000 for violating the Open Meetings Act on June 19 and another $1,000 for violating the OMA on July 26.
Find the entire 73-page ruling here: EGFA v. Gayle Corrigan, KC17-0898.
“It is very difficult for this court to view this time – a relatively short period of time – as anything but noncompliance with the Open Meetings Act and a somewhat willful attempt to violate that act,” McGuirl read from the bench, referring to the Council’s appointment of Corrigan during a meeting held in executive session June 19 without proper notification.
“The town’s conduct directly contravened the legislative intent in enacting the Open Meetings Act, which is that public business be performed in an open and public manner,” said McGuirl, “and that the citizens be advised and aware of the performances of public officials and the deliberations and discussions that go into the making of public policy.”
McGuirl found the town committed five willful, known violations of the Open Meetings Act. In the June 19 meeting, she said, the town failed to provide public notice (about appointing an acting town manager), improperly voted in executive session (to appoint Corrigan as town manager) and failed to keep minutes. In the July 24 meeting, the town failed to provide adequate notice (of the Town Council’s intent to remove the word “acting” from Corrigan’s town manager title) and improperly voted in executive session (on Corrigan’s contract).
She continued, “In my opinion … public service is an honor. Public officials are voted upon and trusted to represent their constituents and make decisions for them. That process needs to be done in the light and not in the dark. During a short period of time, the Town of East Greenwich conducted important business in the dark. The public did not have the right to hear the officials’ explanations, their discussions and their decisions…. It’s time for East Greenwich to turn the lights back on and keep them on.”
“The judge’s decision is a wake up call that the majority of the council is off track,” said Councilman Mark Schwager, the only council member to attend the ruling. He is the lone Democrat on the council and has consistently questioned the council’s actions.
“The Town of East Greenwich is not a private corporation and it’s not a town in receivership,” he said. “Good government requires that we have a good faith relationship with our public sector employees, that we have a collaborative, cooperative relationship with our School Committee and that we have an open and honest communication with our citizens. I’m going to continue to work to implement that approach in East Greenwich town government and I hope that my colleagues will join me in that effort.”
“I have a cinderblock off my shoulders right now,” said James Perry about the judge’s order that he be reinstated. “I want to go back to work. I’m just happy. I can sleep tonight.”
Reached via text, Council President Sue Cienki said Gayle Corrigan remained the town manager.
“Judge has not entered any order yet,” said Cienki.