“The transparency in which the council operates must be at the forefront of all our decisions,” Town Council President Sue Cienki posted on Facebook on Nov. 3, 2016. Now, seven Open Meetings Act violations later (and more being reviewed), Cienki’s philosophy of government and vow for transparency has clearly changed.
When each council member chose to run for office, they did so for the people. Their job is to listen to the residents of East Greenwich, but unfortunately this is not the way the current council has transpired. On Jan. 8, beloved Drug Counselor Bob Houghtaling was on the Town Council agenda for his semiannual presentation on the substance abuse program. During public comment I spoke about my wonderful experiences with Bob as the advisor of the EGHS Civic Action Club and I also spoke out against any alterations to his job, considering how they have altered or eliminated many other positions and employees in town. The council did not like this.
Cienki responded, “Okay, so let me correct any misinformation that may have gotten to you, Anthony. The reason why Bob was here tonight was for him to tell us everything good that he’s done.”
As I was saying, “I am well aware,” I was cut off by Councilor Andy Deutsch. “Anthony, Anthony,” he said, “I have known Bob for longer than you have been alive. . . . you can’t believe everything you hear. . . . ”
There was no misinformation. I simply stated that any negative changes to his job would be a mistake if they were to happen. Yet, it seems like any dissent towards the council is labeled as “misinformation” that must be “corrected.”
Such transparency that Cienki called for as a candidate has become very blurry. The Town Council has used very early Saturday morning meetings as well as quorums in controversial Town Manager Gayle Corrigan’s office to avoid the public. According to the Providence Journal, “[Judge] McGuirl castigated the town for failing to accurately inform the public, and at times outright misleading citizens with vague and inaccurate agendas and meeting minutes.” In addition, town employees say they have been told not to talk to the press (Bob Plain/RI Future).
Occasion after occasion, the Town Council sends out emails and letters to residents filled with propaganda. These letters have supplied misleading facts and have been inflammatory, pointing fingers at different departments and organizations only to further separate our community. Bob Plain reports, “In one particularly egregious example, a finance error in the approved budget made it appear as if the fire department cost $1.4 million more than it actually does.” This propaganda is among much more such as blaming unions for meetings being adjourned and listing town employees who have salaries over $100,000 when discussing fiscal responsibility.
The Town Council has even dared to hinder free speech. The new Employee Social Media Policy, “provides information of a precautionary nature as well as prohibitions on the use of social media by Town personnel.” This new policy comes after several firefighters and other town employees have been very critical of the town’s actions on social media. It also states, “Town employees should assume that their speech . . . on social media sites will be a reflection on the Town as a whole [including during non-work hours]. . . . Any violation of this policy may result in . . . termination of employment.” While the policy is very ambiguous, the town seems to be walking a fine line between pushy employee rules and the First Amendment in another attempt to shut down opposition.
In other instances the council has also tried to control speech at meetings. On July 10, 2017, Town Solicitor David D’Agostino told an elderly woman who spoke against Corrigan in public comment that, “We can’t have personal attacks and personal comments.” Compared to other meetings at least there was a public comment on the agenda. For a period of time public comment was nonexistent in Town Council meetings such as during the important town budget approval meeting in 2017. It was brought back, but placed at the end of meetings so agenda-related input can pointlessly be shared after the votes take place.
Oftentimes the Town Council is rude, inappropriate, unapproachable and disrespectful. They constantly attack and demean the very residents who are involved and care. In a Nov. 6, council meeting, resident David Caldwell spoke during public comment. While he was speaking a few members of the council were blatantly snickering and not listening to what was being said. After he finished, a shocked resident went up and called them out for doing that. Part of Councilor Nino Granatiero’s response to this was, “. . . his kind of crap that we have to put up with all the time.” This is how the taxpayers of East Greenwich are treated. The resident said the council was disrespectful and Granatiero responded, “There’s disrespect when someone comes up and uses theatrics to make a point. . . . You don’t see the emails we get either!”
Behavior like this is certainly not uncommon. In a Nov. 20 meeting, Council Vice President Sean Todd said to over 500 taxpayers, “The taxpayers I represent don’t care about facts,” and most infamously, Cienki called a firefighter a “sociopath” during a private meeting and said, “I will cut his balls off and feed them to his goddamn dog.”
In the bigger picture these instances are not separate events. Through their tactics of intimidation, erratic behavior, scapegoating, and propaganda they try to shut down all forms of dissent and factual information to manipulate the residents of East Greenwich. They ignore the people. They ignore the facts. They only seem to care about their own political and personal agendas.
Nevertheless, the power of the people is greater than the people in power.
– Anthony Soscia, EGHS ‘17