By Elizabeth F. McNamara
It’s been seven months since the Town Council renamed Gayle Corrigan to the town manager post in East Greenwich. On Monday, June 25, they will vote to extend her contract, which expires June 30. This is the result of an eight-month search process for a new town manager that council President Sue Cienki promised when Corrigan was first named interim town manager one year ago, on June 19, 2017, after the abrupt dismissal of former Town Manager Tom Coyle. East Greenwich News wrote a two-part series last November, What Is Happening to East Greenwich, and Why? (Find Part 1 here, Part 2 here.) A lot has happened since then, so here is Part 3.
On Nov. 20, 2017, the Town Council voted 3-2 before a restive crowd of more than 500 people in the high school auditorium to approve the re-appointment of Gayle Corrigan as town manager. At that meeting, council President Sue Cienki said the search for a permanent town manager – in its infancy stage – would continue but that Corrigan was the right person for the job now.
“Is she an unpopular character? Sure. But it’s not about her. These issues are not going away,” Cienki said, referring to financial problems Corrigan had highlighted since she was hired first as a consultant then as town manager in June 2017.
Councilman Mark Schwager, the lone Democrat on the council, voted against Corrigan.
“Whatever her merits or demerits, Ms. Corrigan has become the focus of attention. She has become a lightning rod. I don’t think she can be effective in this position. We need to rebuild the trust and support of the community and the people in this room,” Schwager said.
The other no vote came from Councilman Andy Deutsch, who told Bob Plain of RI Future that he felt it was the right thing to do.
“I felt there was a real intrinsic value to an exit strategy,” he told Plain.
Two days later, the town posted an ad for town manager in various outlets, with resumes due by Dec. 22. The slow march to June 25 had begun.
Fire Department Needs ‘Structural Changes’
In early December, fresh into her second, court-approved tenure as town manager, Gayle Corrigan said in an interview the fire department needed “structural changes,” such as moving from a four-platoon, 42-hour work week to a three-platoon, 56-hour work week.
While firefighters had been anticipating such a move, this was the first time Corrigan had spoken publicly about the plan.
North Kingstown instituted such a system four years ago amid numerous legal challenges from the firefighters, who said the longer shifts were not safe. (The NK fire chief talks about how it works there in this article.) Providence also implemented the 56-hour, 3-platoon system but broke the collective bargaining agreement to accomplish it and lost in the courts. As a result, Providence reverted to the 4-platoon system and last fall agreed to pay the firefighters $2.8 million in back wages. Tim Cavazza, the lawyer hired by both North Kingstown and Providence to force the 3-platoon system, had been hired by East Greenwich too.
The mantra over the fire department was that overtime was excessive. What had been a somewhat stable overtime expense in earlier years – in the $400,000 range – had increased in recent years. It was around $600,000 in 2015 and 2016, $645,000 in 2017 and by halfway into the 2018 fiscal year, it was looking like it could reach as high as $800,000 (as of June 23, it looks closer to $750,000).
The reason: a change in the firefighters 2016-19 contract that, over the course of three years, would increase the minimum manning per shift from 8 to 9 firefighters. That ninth firefighter, however, had been a floater before, an extra person who could fill in for someone out sick or injured, or on vacation, eliminating the necessity of one overtime shift per platoon. Without a floater, overtime increases. The union had argued that adding that ninth person was a safety issue.
If overtime was the only issue, the town could hire an additional firefighter and add a floater to each platoon. But adding additional full-time staff increases costs too, especially in the areas of healthcare and pension. For that reason, Corrigan said she did not want to increase the number of firefighters.
An analysis of firefighter runs, however, shows a clear uptick. Since 2006, the first year the town had 36 firefighters (the current number), the department fielded 2,400 service calls. In 2017, they went on more than 4,000 service calls.
It’s clear, however, that there was some misunderstanding when the 2016-19 contract was signed between the town and the firefighters. The council was told the contract’s fiscal impact was $165,000. Instead, the cumulative fiscal impact was $1.65 million. With the four town officials involved in that contract now gone (Town Manager Tom Coyle, Fire Chief Russ McGillivray, Finance Director Kristin Benoit, and Town Solicitor Peter Clarkin), it’s unknown if this was an error ($165,000 is one zero from $1.65 million).
‘Unprofessional,’ then ‘professional’
In early December, interim Fire Chief Christopher Olsen presented a lengthy report to the Town Council about the fire department, saying the department lacked professionalism among other charges. One month later, as he was leaving his post, Olsen stepped back those comments.
“I want the people out there to know their fire department, their firefighters, are professional. I just wanted to let you know that as well,” he told the Town Council Jan. 11.
Olsen was hired in early November, after Corrigan fired former Fire Chief Russ McGillivray. Olsen made $65 an hour ($2,500 a week). Because he lived in New Hampshire, he was spending Mondays through Thursdays in East Greenwich, with the town paying for a hotel room for three nights each week, at a cost of about $1,180 per month, plus a $3,500 fee charged by the search firm Municipal Resources, Inc. (MRI).
There was no immediate plan to hire a permanent fire chief. Instead, in January, Corrigan hired a second interim chief, Kevin Robinson from Massachusetts. Like Olsen, Robinson (who is still serving as interim chief in June) works during the week in East Greenwich, then returns to Massachusetts for the weekends. MRI earned $4,500 for the Robinson hire. Like Olsen, Robinson earns $65 an hour. Hotel costs for Robinson have varied from $267 to $537 a week.
Schools denied extra appropriation
Meanwhile, the School Committee was discovering that the reality of extra money from the town was different from the stated promise in June, when the Town Council approved a budget giving the schools $770,000 less than the committee had asked for. But in doing so, the Town Council set aside $300,000 of its capital budget for the schools, to cover any unexpected costs in areas like special education. If the district needed extra money, it would be there. If not, the town could use it to cover capital expenses. That was the idea.
By early December, the School Committee learned the reality was not so clear cut. The district knew it had a problem almost immediately last summer, when increased enrollment required opening an additional preschool classroom. The district runs a preschool program to accommodate children with special needs, who by state law are under the school district’s purview starting at age 3. If the district didn’t offer preschool for those children, it would need to pay for out-of-district placement, typically at a higher cost.
So, in December, the committee asked for a supplemental appropriation to cover that cost. No, Corrigan said, you have to wait until further into the year to see how your budget is running, arguing that maybe the cost of that program would be made up in savings in another part of the budget.
Town sues firefighters
On Dec. 19, the town filed suit against the firefighters, looking to Superior Court to decide if the town had the right to reorganize the fire department and implement a three-platoon, 56-hour work week, without negotiating with the union. The suit followed two weeks of secret negotiations between the town and the union that had yielded a tentative agreement.
What went wrong?
According to Council President Sue Cienki, the firefighters walked away from the negotiations. According to the firefighters, their lawyer was reviewing the tentative agreement at the time the town went ahead with the lawsuit.
Under the tentative agreement (Town-Firefighter Tentative Agreement), the addition of the ninth firefighter per shift and the loss of the floater would have been rolled back. The contract would have been extended by two years, through 2021. Firefighters had also agreed to abandon all current grievances. But the town wanted the agreement to allow for the possibility imposing a three-platoon system. The firefighters did not.
Around the same time all this was unfolding, three firefighters asked the state Attorney General to investigate an incident where then-Fire Clerk Kristen Henrikson left their health records out on her desk from Friday to Saturday, Nov. 17-18. Her desk was under a window that fronts on Main Street. She had not been disciplined for the privacy lapse.
Ethics complaints in the new year
Two ethics complaints were filed against Gayle Corrigan and one ethics complaint was lodged against firefighter union president Bill Perry in the first months of 2018. All are still being investigated. The first one, filed by resident Bill Higgins, alleged that Corrigan had a conflict of interest in hiring her business partner Linda Dykeman as the town’s finance director.
The second complaint, filed in April, centered on Corrigan’s failure to disclose business ties in a 2016 state ethics form that she filed in February 2018.
The complaint against Perry, also filed in April, was submitted by former fire chief Peter Henrikson, who said it was a conflict of interest for Perry to work in the same platoon as his brother, James Perry.
Henrikson, an lifelong EG resident, had been advising Corrigan for months. He retired as fire chief just as the town took over the fire district, following a 36-1 vote of no-confidence in his leadership. Henrikson’s wife, Kristen, had been rehired by Corrigan as fire clerk last summer, even though she had reached a settlement with the town to leave just a year earlier. (Henrikson had filed two lawsuits against the fire district and town that had been thrown out by judges before they could proceed; at the time of her settlement, she’d been out on injured-on-duty status for two years). Town Solicitor David D’Agostino notarized Peter Henrikson’s complaint against Perry.
The Henriksons’ fortunes would continue to rise. In May, after Corrigan’s chief of staff, Michaela Antunes, left, that position was renamed “confidential assistant” and Kristen was hired to fill it. Soon after that, Peter was hired as deputy fire chief.
More Open Meetings Act violations
In mid January, the Attorney General’s office cited the town for two Open Meetings Act violations. One violation was for the Town Council failing to notice a restructuring plan on its agenda June 26, a plan that led to the dismissal of three employees June 30. The second violation was for failing to notice (put on the agenda) meeting a presentation by an outside consultant on the two most recent firefighter collective bargaining contracts at the Town Council’s Aug. 28.
That brought to seven the number of times the Town Council was found to have violated the Open Meetings Act between late June and late August.
In late January, Corrigan announced she would no longer speak to East Greenwich News, saying the site had failed to live up to journalistic standards. Her reason was that we had failed to identify a board member in an article in which he had appeared. That was accurate; we had failed to identify him as a member of the board in that article.
Almost as soon as it had appeared in spring 2017, a brochure sent out by the town had prompted questions. The brochure was meant to show the historic increase in tax rates and how such increases were unsustainable. Among the people asking questions, resident Eugene Quinn wondered how the brochure could state that the median tax bill in town went up 51 percent between 2011 and 2016 while the tax levy only went up 15 percent. Quinn, a mathematics professor, got ahold of the tax rolls from both years and went through them property by property, arriving at a vastly different figure for the median tax bill increase: 14.6 percent.
Eventually, Council President Cienki offered to meet with Quinn and another resident, Anne Musella, who had been following the brochure brouhaha. In December, Cienki brought Council Vice Chair Sean Todd to the meeting along with shadow advisor Stuart Peterson, who had served briefly on the School Committee in 2016 and had himself spent lots of time poring over numbers. While that meeting failed to produce any immediate results, in February, Cienki sent out an email to town residents correcting what she admitted was an error in the brochure – the 51 percent should have been 15 percent.
Should the town have taken over the fire district?
Using information gleaned from talks with Peter Henrikson and former fire district commissioners, Corrigan continued to chip away at the fire department. She made presentations at Town Council meetings in February and March outlining why she thought the decision to merge had been a bad one. As she put it in February, town officials had had good intentions but had not done their due diligence. She said the fire district’s ability to raise taxes above the state-mandated 4 percent cap was helpful. She also praised the leadership of the former fire district commissioners and said the fire department had lost careful oversight in the transition to a town department.
In her March presentation, Corrigan blamed the negotiating naivete of former Town Manager Tom Coyle, former Town Solicitor Peter Clarkin and former Fire Chief Russell McGillivray for contracts she said were “killing” the town.
But it was something that took place under the leadership of the fire district that was coming back to bite the town now: the fire district’s decision in 2004 to impose commercial impact fees on new development. One of the companies hit with those fees sued and in 2016 ended up winning in the state Supreme Court. That win opened the door for others affected by those fees to be compensated. In total, the hit to the town has been more than $2 million.
While Corrigan spoke favorably of a fire district’s ability to tax above the state-imposed cap in times of financial need, especially in light of capital needs that are hard to fulfill under a tax cap, President Cienki said she stood by the fire district merger and she did not regret the council’s decision to level-fund the town budget this past year, even as it was becoming clear that the town was looking at some big numbers when it came to capital projects and deferred maintenance.
Capital spending had become a focus because the Planning Board had taken on a duty that had long been neglected – responsibility for developing a six-year capital spending plan and recommending a one-year capital spending budget to the town for its budget.
The numbers were daunting.
Looking at everything from turf field replacement at the high school ($1.5 million) to custodial equipment ($80,000) to school building maintenance ($37 million), the total for six years came to $97.7 million. Most of that related to schools and if the town goes out to bond for school projects, that money will be partially reimbursed by the state, as happened with the building of the new Cole Middle School.
The budget the Planning Department sent to the Town Council for fiscal year 2019 was $1.5 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the $97.7 million over six years. But it was all town officials thought the budget could bear. When the budget was finally passed, however, the actual amount for capital spending was $686,471, less than half what the Planning Board had recommended.
Changes in senior services
In February, the town said goodbye to the popular director of senior services, Erin McAndrew, who took an assistant director position with the senior services department in North Kingstown. Her departure prompted Corrigan to merge the parks and recreation department with the senior and human services department, after she said she couldn’t find any single candidate who could do all McAndrew did. Instead, she hired two people – one to work on senior services and the other to help with community relations, although it took her two Town Council meetings to get approval for that second hire.
At the first meeting, in March, Councilors Mark Schwager and Nino Granatiero spoke out against the need to add an additional employee to a department that has been considered well run and during a time of fiscal challenge. The other councilors were persuaded; they approved combining the two departments, but voted down the added employee. When the panel reconvened two weeks later, the majority had had a change of heart and approved the new position and the person to fill it, with Schwager casting the lone no vote.
More changes were in store for the senior and human services department. After the department’s social worker left (also to work for North Kingstown), Corrigan decided to leave the post vacant and have the community relations employee – who has been working on the town’s social media presence – take on some of the social work duties.
Firefighter-Related Legal Bills Surface
The town is served by a town solicitor for legal work (at a rate of $11,500 a month) but in September Tim Cavazza, a lawyer from the law firm Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder & Siket, LLP, was seen going into executive session with the Town Council after a council meeting. Since then, there had been meetings, negotiations, court dates and the lawsuit filed in December, all work conducted by Cavazza.
In December, EG News requested copies of all legal bills the town had received from Whelan, Corrente in 2017 up until that time. In February, the town finally released a single sheet for work done through November 2017, for a total of $104,555. The bill did not resemble the types of bills the same law firm had submitted to Providence and North Kingstown, two municipalities Cavazza had done similar work for (specifically, helping them institute a 56-hour work week, to varying degrees of success). Those bills consisted of multiple pages and listed time spent on specific issues to the tenth of an hour, as is the norm for law firms.
The town refused a request for a copy of the “letter of engagement” between the town and Whelan, Corrente. Town Solicitor David D’Agostino said the document – which lays out hourly rates, billing schedule, etc., – was confidential.
That bill through November was the last bill made public until end of May. In March and April, the town’s response to Access to Public Records (APRA) requests was that it had no such bills in their “care, custody and control.”
Publicly, Town Council President Cienki said, when asked about the lack of legal bills, that probably no work had been done then, or if there had been, it wasn’t very much. When bills for December and January released May 31 totalled $74,000, Cienki expressed surprise.
Earlier in June, the town released the Whelan, Corrente legal bill for March, but failed to release the February bill. The March bill, however – for $16,000 – included a balance of $60,000, for a total bill of $76,000. Perhaps the $60,000 was for February? Town officials have not responded to that question.
School Committee approves Corrigan’s plan
In March, the School Committee approved consolidating the district’s finance department – literally merging them in one office – with the town, despite significant misgivings. Why? Corrigan told them they either do a complete merge or the district would be on its own. Having merged certain parts of the finance department with the town years ago, including payroll, the prospect of spending money to hire more backroom employees to recreate an fully independent school finance department was untenable. As it was, the district was already anticipating a deficit for the year, the second in a row.
That vote set into motion a bit of musical chairs at Town Hall, the school department and other town offices, including the superintendent moving to Town Hall and the Planning Department moving in with Public Works. The consolidated finance department will be housed at Town Hall. Most of those moves are scheduled to take place over the summer. While much of the construction will be done in-house, some will be contracted out. Cost estimates have not been released.
Hostile council meetings
Meanwhile, the atmosphere at Town Council meetings remained charged and occasionally poisonous. The vast majority of those attending the meetings either spoke out against or showed their support for those who spoke out against council and town manager actions. Sometimes council members would listen in silence, sometimes they would respond. But neither side appeared to be hearing the other.
While the feedback from dozens of residents at the meetings hasn’t discernibly swayed council actions, Councilmen Nino Granatiero and Sean Todd have both said during meetings that they are getting positive feedback from residents outside of meetings. That support may not be quantifiable until Election Day. All five council seats are up for election in November. Democrat Mark Schwager, usually the only voice of dissent on the council, is the only member who has announced plans to run for reelection. With the declaration of candidacy period this week (June 25-27), residents will soon know if any other council members are planning to run again.
Meanwhile, in May, Rep. Anthony Giarrusso, a Republican, sent a letter out to Republicans in East Greenwich decrying what he portrayed as an attempted hostile takeover of the town by progressive forces. Giarrusso had previously declined to comment on the situation in town. Giarrusso, if he decides to run for re-election, would face an already active opponent for the House seat – Democrat Justine Caldwell.
In March, the firefighters filed suit against the town in U.S. District Court, alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act regarding overtime pay.
This brought the number of lawsuits involving the town and town employees to seven, including four filed by former Town Hall workers, one firefighter suing for defamation, and the town’s suit against the firefighters over implementation of a 56-hour work week.
In April, the School Committee approved a budget for fiscal year 2019 that called for a 4 percent increase in the town’s appropriation. It was a gamble considering the town had given them only a third of what they asked for in additional funding the previous year. But committee members were beginning to think they didn’t have enough money to run the district as required by law. They had decided to contract out a dual financial-programmatic audit to determine just what they did need to operate the school district according to state law.
The town’s audit for fiscal year 2017 (July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017), typically due by the end of December, was finally completed in April. It showed the town had a total surplus of $380,000. Actually, the town came in with a $1.1 million surplus, but the schools had a $728,000 deficit.
Town Manager Corrigan’s initial budget, released in May, proposed giving $150,000 in additional funds to the schools. But it took the tax rate increase to near the 4 percent cap. Over the coming weeks, the budget was corrected and revised numerous times. Meanwhile, the School Committee learned officially that it was running an anticipated $400,000 deficit for the current year, prompting the need to notify the state for a second year in a row.
When Corrigan made her first budget presentation to the council, she sounded the alarm that raising taxes couldn’t get East Greenwich out of the financial mess it was in. Yet, by not raising taxes for FY2018, that meant the town had to cut capital spending and had given the schools less than they said they needed, as well as lowering the amount it could raise for FY2019.
On June 6, the Town Council voted 4-1 (Schwager voted no) to approve a budget that would keep the tax rate essentially level but would take $1 million out of the town’s fund balance to do it. The discussion between the councilors was openly hostile, with Councilors Granatiero, Todd and Deutsch piling on against Schwager, who Granatiero accused of causing the town’s current financial problems.
The schools ended up with $500,000 over the current year appropriation from the town, less than the School Committee said it needed but more than that original $150,000.
This follows the town’s need to take $1.7 million out of fund balance (i.e. surplus) this year to cover that adverse fire impact fee litigation settlement. The resulting drop in the town’s fund balance puts the town’s credit rating at risk.
Meanwhile, the approved budget called for certain town positions to remain vacant, including three at the police department. The animal control officer position that was vacated earlier in 2018 would remain unfilled and two detective positions would be left unfilled through attrition. Those positions are not bound by the contract between the police union and the town, so they could be left vacant without requiring any negotiation. What it meant was that if a patrolman left the department, one of the detectives would move in to fill that spot. Chief Steven Brown said the department could survive the reduction in detectives, temporarily.
Public Works Director Joe Duarte said the same about the building inspector position that Corrigan decided to leave empty for now.
But for the second year in a row, the Town Council could say it had delivered a budget with no real tax increase.
It was just a few days after the council passed the budget that Councilman Granatiero said the council was ready to vote on the next town manager. That vote takes place Monday, June 25.
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