By Elizabeth F. McNamara
Tensions have been building for months in East Greenwich as town officials have made layoffs, fired employees and have pointed the finger at EG firefighters as the source of the town’s alleged looming fiscal crisis. Then, on Nov. 8, Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl issued a harshly-worded ruling against the town, nullifying the appointment of Town Manager Gayle Corrigan for what McGuirl called the town’s “willful” violations of the Open Meetings Act. The judge also ordered the town to reinstate firefighter James Perry, who Corrigan had fired in August. When the Town Council gathering Nov. 14 to address the issues raised by McGuirl’s ruling – most importantly, to vote on Corrigan as town manager – the meeting was abruptly cancelled because the meeting space could not accommodate dozens of additional residents who wanted to attend. In Part Two, we bring things up to present day. Find Part One here. – Editor’s note
While there were hints of unease in the months leading up to Gayle Corrigan’s appointment as town manager June 19, the town went into full-fledged turmoil after she dismissed three employees and hired her consulting partner and an acquaintance to fill two of those jobs. Accusations and counter-accusations went back and forth on social media seemingly round the clock, with threads on the most popular (if contentious) Facebook page, East Greenwich Parents for Excellence, containing 60 comments or more.
Many town and school employees, all of whom are unionized, decided to attend the Town Council meeting July 10 – the first since the personnel changes – in a show of solidarity. The meeting, held at Town Hall, was packed upstairs and down with residents and union members (and some who were both). Many wore bright blue t-shirts emblazoned with the words, “One Team,” a play off of the Town Council’s adopted “One Town” philosophy. The crowd was noisy and unwieldy in the confines of the historic building. Before the meeting had gotten past the second item on the agenda, the entire meeting devolved, with those in attendance complaining they couldn’t hear and asking that the meeting be moved to a larger venue. Council President Cienki abruptly adjourned the meeting, citing the fire marshal’s ruling the building was overcrowded, but not before getting into a shouting match with one man in the balcony who later was identified as an employee from the National Education Association of R.I.
Immediately after the meeting, the town published individual employee salary information on its website (town councilors also distributed the info sheet to people as they left Town Hall). The information is no longer available on the website but it highlighted those employees who earned the most in 2016 – including several firefighters and police by name (both fire and police can accrue lots of extra money in a given year by working overtime). While this was public information, opponents of Cienki-Corrigan saw it as an attempt to sow division.
Town Council meetings moved to Swift Community Center (capacity 253) after that.
‘Acting Town Manager’
From the moment Gayle Corrigan was named acting town manager on June 19, residents complained that her appointment did not conform with the Town Charter, which states that a “town officer” must be appointed to the job – in other words, an existing employee. In 2014, when Bill Sequino announced he was leaving the town manager job in 2014, the Town Council picked then-Police Chief Tom Coyle to serve as interim (he was later hired on to fill the permanent position). When Sequino was hired in 1988 (yes, he served for 26 years), the then-public works director had been filling in as town manager.
Corrigan was not an employee of the town at the time of her appointment; she was a consultant. But the town solicitor, David D’Agostino, argued that the charter was not clear about exactly who was a town officer and that ultimately the Town Council had the authority to act as it saw fit. (Later, Judge McGuirl would question that logic but she did not include that in her reasoning to nullify Corrigan’s appointment.)
After Corrigan’s appointment, President Cienki said the action was temporary and the council would start a search for a permanent town manager right away. And, in fact, discussion of the town manager position was listed on the agenda for the aborted July 10 meeting. It was back on the agenda July 24, but instead of discussing a search, Solicitor D’Agostino stunned many in the audience when he recommended the council vote to drop the “acting” from Corrigan’s title. He reasoned that the word “acting” was problematic and perhaps should never have been used in the first place.
After a brief discussion, during which Cienki promised that a search for a permanent town manager would still take place, the council voted to remove “acting” from Corrigan’s title. The erstwhile town manager search reappeared on later agendas, with Councilman Nino Granatiero tasked with pulling together a search committee. Cienki in October said yes to a search but said she wants Corrigan to finish her job, and in early November Granatiero said the job search for a new manager was real, if not yet active.
An Early Saturday Morning Meeting
In August, a Town Council agenda appeared on the town’s website for a meeting to be held Saturday morning, Aug. 19, with a single item: naming an interim fire chief. The agenda appeared the same day Council President Cienki sent a letter out on the town’s email list that spoke about the hard work the council had been doing and mentioned some challenges ahead. Among those challenges, “a fire department that is unique among all town departments in that it overspends its budget every year.”
The reason the council needed to appoint an interim fire chief, Cienki said, was to follow the Town Charter, which states that the council must name an interim chief when the chief is out for an extended period. Fire Chief Russell McGillivray had told Town Manager Corrigan on Aug. 16 that he would be out for two weeks for an unnamed medical issue. As he’d done in the past, the chief authorized the next in command to fill in, in this case Capt. Tom Mears. (There was no deputy chief – the town having decided to leave that post vacant to save money after the last deputy chief retired last year.) However, the agenda did not indicate who the Town Council would be voting on to serve as interim and Cienki said on the Thursday before the meeting she had no idea who it would be.
People speculated that this was Corrigan’s chance to fire six so-called lateral transfers* – firefighters from other departments who had been hired in August 2016 under former Town Manager Tom Coyle. They were on probation until Aug. 22, after which they would be entitled to more union protection. Corrigan had expressed her feeling that lateral hires were not a good idea. One of the transfers was the former union president from Central Coventry Fire District, where Corrigan served (and still serves) as manager. Another was from another fire district in Coventry and was the brother of EGFD union president Bill Perry. To fire any of them, Corrigan needed the recommendation of the fire chief, as per the charter. Chief McGillivray had not recommended their firing. Maybe another – interim – chief would?
Despite the early hour, firefighters and residents turned out by the dozens that Saturday. The meeting, however, was anticlimactic and brief. Corrigan recommended Mears to serve as interim and the council approved it unanimously, but not before Councilman Schwager questioned Corrigan and Cienki for the meeting’s unnecessary drama. Later that same Saturday – at 10:18 p.m. according to court testimony – Corrigan sent an email to Bill Perry in his role as union president notifying him that the town was firing his brother, James Perry, for lying on his resume. Corrigan later testified she could fire Perry because the council had only appointed Mears fire chief for operations, not administration, and that she held the administrative duties. Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl would go on to find this reasoning flawed.
A few days after James Perry was fired, Corrigan laid off Bill Perry’s wife, who worked in the finance department, citing lack of work. Laurie Perry was the last person hired in that office, so per union rules she would be the first to go. There was some drama a couple of days later, when the Perrys went to Town Hall to pick up Laurie’s belongings (she had been fired via email, on a day she was not at work). Laurie Perry said she only collected her things. When Finance Director Linda Dykeman (Corrigan’s consulting partner) asked to see what Perry was taking, she refused. Dykeman proceeded to have police issue both Bill and Laurie Perry a No Trespass order for the Finance Department.
Earlier in August, Corrigan had hired back the fire department’s former clerk, Kristen Henrikson, who had sued the fire department for employment discrimination in state and federal courts, losing in both, and had been out on paid leave from 2014 to 2016. Henrikson had received a settlement of $74,000 to give up the clerk job in 2016. Corrigan argued the town owed it to Henrikson to offer her the position.
Pensions Gone Wild?
In the same letter in August where Cienki decried the fire department’s failure to keep to its budget, she also warned of a looming unfunded pension liability of $86 million. EG News investigated the pension situation in East Greenwich and found according to state records that the number was closer to $46 million (including “other post-retirement benefits, or OPEB, Iiabilities, which Cienki included in her number). The difference has to do with the rate of return – Cienki’s prediction was that the pension funds will earn a lower rate of return than the state has predicted. Beyond her warning, Cienki has not indicated a direct remedy – i.e. whether she’d be willing to pay more than the state requires into the system.
Then, during the Town Council meeting on Aug. 28, Town Manager Corrigan surprised residents attending the meeting when, in place of her Town Manager’s Report, she introduced a consultant from Ohio who she’d hired to analyze the two most recent firefighter contracts. The consultant gave a 25-minute presentation that painted a dire portrait of the contracts’ long-term consequences. However, the consultant did not talk with Fire Chief McGillivray and the analysis did not include such things as the firefighters’ increased pension contribution. In addition, Corrigan’s failure to include the presentation on the agenda resulted in at least two pending Open Meetings Act complaints to the state Attorney General’s office (one of which was filed by East Greenwich News).
In early September, the firefighters union filed suit against the town over the firing of James Perry and several alleged Open Meetings Act violations, including one accusing the town of hiring Corrigan without proper notice. Firefighter lawyer Elizabeth Wiens requested the Perry and OMA issues be consolidated and fast-tracked. Town Solicitor D’Agostino agreed. So, in remarkably speedy fashion, the Superior Court trial was held over five days in late September before Judge Susan McGuirl. Which, faithful reader, means we are just about caught up. You can read about the trial here.
But there are a few more things worth mentioning.
When Corrigan took the stand Sept. 21, she testified that she’d lost confidence in Fire Chief McGillivray. One day later, when the agenda for the Town Council meeting came out, a now-familiar item appeared under the Executive Session portion – the discussion of job performance for an unnamed employee, just as had appeared in June when the council discussed former Town Manager Coyle before his abrupt departure. McGillivray was the unnamed employee, but when the council met Sept. 25, that item had been removed from the agenda with no comment. Later that week, EG News learned a former FBI agent who’d help bring down Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci had been brought in to question McGillivray.
It’s not clear who hired the private investigator but the Town Council has met with lawyer Tim Cavazza in executive session at least twice in recent months. Cavazza is the same lawyer who has defended both North Kingstown and Providence in lawsuits brought by firefighters when those municipalities forced fire departments to go from four platoon systems to three. (North Kingstown won in that court case, although litigation continues. Alternatively, Providence lost.) And Cavazza belongs to the law firm Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder and Siket LLP. Bob Corrente worked with the private investigator when he was U.S. Attorney on the Cianci case and Bob Flanders was Corrigan’s boss in Central Falls and was the one who suggested Corrigan to Cienki.
It wasn’t until Nov. 6, however, that McGillivray was fired (no reasons were given) and former Cape Cod fire chief Christopher Olsen took over as interim at an hourly fee of $65, plus hotel expenses during his tenure (Olsen lives in New Hampshire).
And, remember in Part One, when firefighter union president Bill Perry lodged a complaint against Council President Cienki for threatening language during a meeting in June? Cienki’s words were also directed to firefighter David Gorham, one of the lateral transfers. Gorham had been the former Central Coventry Fire District union president. He was not at the meeting, but Cienki referred to him a “sociopath.” Gorham filed suit against the town and Cienki personally in early November, citing character defamation and sexual harassment.
The Town Council meeting to respond to Judge McGuirl’s ruling will now take place on Monday, Nov. 20 – the original meeting Nov. 14 having been cancelled because the venue wasn’t big enough for all the people who wanted to attend. The new venue, the auditorium at East Greenwich High School, holds 700 and has an overflow area. The council will vote on the appointment of Gayle Corrigan as town manager that night as well as vote to ratify decisions she made before the ruling. The agenda lists the late June personnel decisions but then jumps to October – appearing to list only those decisions that required Town Council approval. Decisions such as the hiring of the Ohio consultant do not appear on the agenda.
Councilman Schwager came out on Friday, Nov. 17, with a press release urging Corrigan to withdraw from consideration.
“To continue to debate hiring Gayle Corrigan as town manager is to continue to disrupt, divide and damage the East Greenwich community. It is time for Corrigan to step aside so the Council can begin to focus on the Town’s business, instead of continuous distractions created by unnecessary confrontations with our town employees, school committee and members of the public,” he wrote.
Then, that same evening, the town sent out an email from President Cienki accusing “the former town manager” and “former fire chief” of “Incorrect cost calculations. Misleading reporting. Cronyism and nepotism. Unapproved agreements. Improper loans. Discriminatory hiring practices.”
Days after Corrigan’s hire, Cienki said, “I think the end result, people are going to be happy.” She has reiterated that view consistently since then.