By Elizabeth F. McNamara
A few days ago, we posted the most read stories of 2019 (find it here). Today we offer those stories we consider the most important of the year. There is some overlap but many of the stories are about municipal or school actions or budgets, essential news for any community but without always the excitement of the Police Log say, or the heartbreaking human side of a tragedy like the car crash death of Patty Daniels. If you think there’s a story we overlooked here, leave a comment and let us know!
The town looks a lot different at the close of 2019 than it did at the beginning. Remember back … the all-Democratic Town Council had been sworn in just weeks earlier, immediately removing Gayle Corrigan as town manager. Public Works director Joe Duarte had been drafted to serve as interim, with help from finance consultant Mike D’Amico.
The town’s fire chief and finance director posts were vacant too. By year’s end, these positions were filled, new leadership was shaping the way forward, and the Town Council was able to take a couple of steps back from running the whole show. If nothing else, the Town Council will probably meet less in 2020. In 2019, they met a whopping 49 times, compared to 34 meetings in 2018.
Without question, the most important hire of the year was that of new Town Manager Andrew Nota, who took over in September. No big shake ups in the first few months but Nota does appear intent on reviewing all of the town’s practices and change practices he believes to be unwise or counterproductive (i.e. he’s adding staffing to the Finance Department after the last administration had cut staff there).
Contracts for all five municipal unions were up for renewal by the end of fiscal year 2019 (June 30) and they were all settled with some health care and post-employment benefit concessions (as well as raises in years 2 and 3) by June. After the tense union-management relationships hat seemed highly aspirational at the beginning of 2019. The 2016-18 Town Council made gaining huge concessions from the firefighters union its number one priority. The ensuing battles prompted the union to file dozens of grievances, the town to sue the firefighters over a desired mid-contract staffing change, and the firings of then Chief McGillivary and two firefighters (one who had his job restored after the town lost in court over the firing), as well as the hirings of two interim chiefs from out of state. The new council promised a more civil approach; the contract with the firefighters, the first they tackled, was approved in April.
The biggest controversy for the Town Council in 2019 was its decision to consider changes to the noise ordinance for the Water Street district. The first time the council had it on the agenda, in March, the only people who showed up to speak were residents who had been asking the council to limit the noise from restaurants like Blu on the Water and Finn’s Harborside, with both offer outdoor music in the summer months. Restaurant owners, and their patrons, responded angrily after learning about the meeting; they felt excluded (agendas for all council meetings are posted publicly ahead of time but no one from the town notified the restaurant owners that the noise ordinance was going to be discussed). Subsequent meetings toggled between contentious and friendly, with some held at Swift Community Center to accommodate larger crowds. Ultimately, the council did approve lower decibel levels for Water Street establishments. The test of whether or not the changes hurt business, as the restaurants have argued (though outdoor music is still allowed) will begin in May, the start of the outdoor music season. The story above includes links to all the stories and two letters to the editor we posted about the noise ordinance.
One of the more under-the-radar stories of the year that will have considerable impact going forward is the state law on affordable housing that is allowing developers to use a fast-track process that significantly limits the town’s ability to shape new housing projects. State law requires communities to have 10 percent of housing stock considered “affordable” (affordable housing can be Section 8 or more expensive but still below-market-rate; mobile homes don’t count toward the 10 percent). The two developments in the story above include 96 low-income units on South County Trail, all to be deemed “affordable” The town has no way to impose impact fees on the development, as it can on other residential developments. Most of the units are one- or two-bedroom; it’s unclear how many families with school-age children will move in. [Editor’s note: EG News stated incorrectly in a previous version of this post that the property owner of the 96-unit complex would not pay property tax; the owner will have to pay a percentage of the yearly rental income. We regret the error.]
The tragic car crash that took place just minutes after midnight, Sept. 7, was the biggest news story of the year in terms of readership. Beyond the clicks, though, it was an important story because Patty Daniels, the woman who died as a result of the crash, was one of the town’s own, having grown up in East Greenwich and worked here. And the driver, Barbara Trojan of North Kingstown, who has been charged with three felonies as a result of the accident, had been drinking at the East Greenwich American Legion post on Main Street for several hours before crashing her car into the car being driven the other way by Patty’s sister, Donna Daniels, on Frenchtown Road. Trojan’s blood alcohol content at the hospital after the crash was .225 percent (.8 percent is the legal limit). Adding to the tragedy, the Daniels’ car was coming home from the wedding of a close friend. The American Legion post has since relinquished its liquor license, unable to secure insurance it should have had at the time of the crash.
Here are the big 2020 stories on the school side:
The irony of Supt. Victor Mercurio’s departure was that he finally had a full complement of administrative staffing help. But 10 years is a long time for a superintendent to stay on. He will start as a full-time professor of graduate studies at Johnson & Wales in January. We recalled his tenure here. The search for a replacement is under way, with the goal to have a new superintendent in place by early summer.
The debate about whether or not it was legal for parents to pay fees for field trips started in East Greenwich after Matt Plain was elected to the School Committee in 2016. By 2018 it had become enough of an issue the School Committee looked to the state education commissioner for advice. In April, it got its answer – and so did the rest of the state. Communities are still recalibrating, even East Greenwich with its head start. You can find more about how EGSD is handling field trips here.
EG Girls Rule the Sports World
It’s been an extraordinary few months for East Greenwich girls sports, starting with EGLL Girls Softball Under 12 team winning the state championship and making it to the semi-finals at the regional championship in Connecticut in July.
In addition, the freshmen girls cross country team won its state championship, the JV team won its state championship and the EG Girls placed fourth at the New England Championships. Oh, and Coach Erin Terry was named 2019 Girls Cross Country Coach of the Year.
It was a return to glory for the EGHS field hockey program, marking its sixth state championship. Icing on the cake: long-time coach Deb McMullen was inducted into the RI Interscholastic Hall of Fame just days before the final game.
It was deja vu all over again when the Avengers came from two games behind to capture the state championship in November, just as it had a year earlier.
Sophomore Maddie Omicioli had to sit out most of the 2018 season but she made up for it this year. With her win in October, Omicioli became the fifth state singles champion in seven years for the Lady Avengers.
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