By Elizabeth F. McNamara
East Greenwich, R.I. – In another rebuke from the court, Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl issued a ruling Thursday that the town cannot force the firefighters into a three-platoon structure while there is a valid contract enshrining a four-platoon structure. The town and the firefighters have a contract good through June 30, 2019.
To quote the ruling:
“The Town executed its management rights and agreed with the Union as to the organizational structure of the EGFD for three years. The fire fighters of East Greenwich relied on that contract to plan their professional and personal lives. The Town and Union have expectations as to the execution and performance of the contract for the next three years. For the Town to now say, ‘well, we’ve changed our minds,’ in the face of this three-year agreement without giving notice and without any negotiation is simply unfair.”
In her ruling (Town of EG vs. EG Firefighters), McGuirl said the town did have the right to reorganization the fire department, just not in the middle of the contract:
“At the expiration of the contract – June 30, 2019 – the Town can reorganize the EGFD in any manner that they believe best serves the people of East Greenwich. The people of the Town can voice their approval or disapproval at town meetings and ultimately at the ballot box.”
This is the second time a ruling from Judge McGuirl has come down strongly against the town. In November 2017, she ruled against the town in a number of Open Meetings Act violations and the firing of Firefighter James Perry.
“The East Greenwich Firefighters are very pleased by Judge McGuirl’s decision,” said firefighter union president Bill Perry Thursday. “I asked the Town Council several times to please sit with us and work together. They unfortunately decided to take legal action against us instead of working collectively together and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
In a press release issued late Thursday, Town Council President Sue Cienki said McGuirl’s decision was “disappointing” and would cost the town money:
“This decision extends the cost the taxpayers will have to pay by delaying our implementation of structural changes to the fire department and is disappointing. Since July 1st, the beginning of this fiscal year, the Town is averaging $22,195 per week to cover approximately 512 hours of weekly overtime that is spread primarily among 13 firefighters; annualized that will work out to more than 26,000 hours of overtime at a cost of $1.2 million this fiscal year alone. This is unsafe for the citizens of East Greenwich and for the firefighters and cannot continue in the long term. ”
The fire department at full staff has 36 firefighters. Right now, two positions are vacant (one from a departure and one from a firing) and the fire department has made no move to fill them. In addition, three firefighters are out on “injured on duty” status. According to Perry, one of those firefighters has been cleared by their doctor to return to work but the town has not let him return to work yet.
Cienki noted that McGuirl said the town had a right to change the fire department:
“As a result of this ruling, the Town now has the legal authority to consider several alternative fire suppression and EMS options including moving to 3-platoon, 56-hour workweek; a volunteer model; privatization of services or entering into contracts for shared fire and EMS services, to be implemented on July 1, 2019.”
Judge McGuirl also ruled the town could not unilaterally stop paying union officials for time spent on union duties without first seeking a ruling by the state Labor Relations Board (SLRB). She said while the court had jurisdiction over the issue, it deferred to the SLRB but that any decision by that body would “be subject to administrative review by this Court at the request of either party.”
The town’s press release said the Town Council would discuss its options during executive session during its meeting Monday.
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