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 what they say is the town’s 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 this article, we attempt to explain how East Greenwich got to this point. Find Part 2 here. – Editor’s note
Once upon a time, there was a quiet little town called East Greenwich, with a popular Main Street, good schools, lots of nice houses, and town governance that was so boring most people paid it little heed. Today, Main Street is still popular, the schools are still good, there are still lots of nice houses, but EG’s Town Council meetings have become the hottest ticket in town. So much so that dozens of people were left outside in the cold Tuesday after the meeting site reached its 253-person limit, looking like a line outside a popular nightclub on a Saturday night.
So, what gives, East Greenwich? Why all the excitement?
The election of 2016 is one starting point but since town officials are aiming their ire at the EG Fire Department, it might be better to go back to 2013, when the town still had a Fire District, with its own governance and taxing authority. The Republican-led Town Council then decided the fire district should be consolidated with the town under the reasoning that having separate taxing authorities was unnecessary in such a small town – EG has around 13,000 residents – and that some amount of cost savings could be found through consolidation. The council put the question to EG voters, who approved of the consolidation by a 2-to-1 margin in a nonbinding referendum.
The governing fire district commissioners did not agree, but after months of meetings between the two governing bodies and permission from the General Assembly, the EG Fire District became the town fire department in 2014. Then Fire Chief Peter Henrikson retired and the deputy chief, Russell McGillivray, was hired to serve as chief.
Just as that was happening, EG’s town manager since 1988, Bill Sequino, announced he was leaving to take a job with the state. Sequino had served as town manager for 25 years, accumulating just the right balance of longevity and good will by 2014 that his power was enviable. The Town Council named Police Chief Tom Coyle to serve as interim town manager. Coyle, who lived in Coventry, had started with the EGPD as a patrolman, working his way up through the ranks. When the interview process for a permanent town manager came along, Coyle threw his hat in the ring and the council hired him.
Coyle spent long hours in his new position and he was well liked. Under Coyle, however, then-Town Council President Michael Isaacs gained some of the power Sequino’s departure had left behind. Isaacs had been president of the Town Council since he was first elected in 2004. He won reelection again in 2014 but was term-limited out in 2016.
2016 Election: New Council President; No More Town Meeting
In that election, three of the current Town Council members were re-elected, including Republican lawyer Sue Cienki, the top vote getter. Cienki, who had first won a spot on the Town Council in 2014, was well known in town, having served on school PTG boards (she and her husband, Paul, have five children), then the School Committee (including as chairwoman). Among her accomplishments, Cienki has spoken with pride of her work on the committee responsible for overseeing the building of a new Cole Middle School completed in 2011.
Mark Schwager, a doctor and the only Democrat elected in 2016, received the second highest vote total. This was Schwager’s fourth term on the council, but they had not been consecutive terms. He’d served from 2006 to 2010, then again starting in 2014. Schwager had made two unsuccessful runs for state office, running for state senate in 2010 and state representative in 2012. He also served on the Fire District Board of Commissioners from 2011 until it merged with the town in 2013.
Sean Todd, who works in medical sales, also won reelection in 2016. Todd, a Republican, had first gained a seat on the council in 2014.
The newcomers in 2016 were Nino Granatiero, a businessman who, with his wife Jessica, owns The Savory Grape, a local wine shop, and Andrew Deutsch, who grew up in town and replaced Todd as the council’s youngest member. Deutsch works in sales for Cox Communications.
There was another item on the Nov. 2016 ballot – asking residents if they wanted to eliminate the annual Financial Town Meeting. The question had been narrowly rejected in 2014. In 2016, it narrowly won. The FTM’s power had been muted in recent years – a quorum of at least 250 people was needed and the only vote was an up and down vote on the entire Town Council-approved budget – and attendance had been abysmal. But its elimination meant EG’s last vestige of New England small-town direct democracy was gone.
Changes on Schools Side Started in 2014
Meanwhile, the School Committee had gone through a transition of its own in 2014, when two members of the seven-person panel lost their bids for re-election, including the then-chairman of the committee, David Green. Of the four who won in 2014, three had been endorsed by the then-new Facebook group East Greenwich Parents for Excellence, which had served as an organizing tool for those candidates and their supporters. The panel went from majority Republican to majority Democrat and embarked on an ambitious list of priorities, including completing the stalled strategic plan, instituting a later start for middle and high school students, and adding all-day kindergarten.
But some parents were angry about the changes, especially the later start time – which was instituted in fall 2016 – and expressed frustration at what they saw as newcomers trying to fix a system that was already working well.
While the EGPFE Facebook page gave parents (and others – the page is not restricted to EG parents) a platform to discuss school and town issues, by 2016 some people were leaving the page, saying it was too divisive and had a liberal agenda.
In 2015, another local Facebook page started, EG Insider. It posted town announcements and other generally positive content, as well as information about Republican events and it was supportive of Town Council actions.
Under Michael Isaacs, Town Council meetings were usually attended by only a handful of regulars, some town employees and a reporter or two. Things started out that way in the Cienki era, but shifted quickly after Councilman Todd tweeted about the Women’s March Jan. 21 – one day after the Trump inauguration – setting off a firestorm that gained statewide attention.
“Definitely a guy came up with the idea for the #womensmarch. Perfect way to get the wives outta the house,” Todd tweeted. Two days later, at the Town Council’s regularly scheduled meeting, Swift Community Center was filled to capacity and speaker after speaker got up to admonish Todd, who apologized.
While many characterized Todd and his tweet as sexist, others said the tweet was just humor gone awry and the loud outcry against it a prime example of political correctness. Tensions started to build.
Then, in February, the Town Council approved spending up to $15,000 on a marketing campaign. At that meeting, councilors spoke of the need to be able to keep residents informed, especially since this would be the first year there was no Financial Town Meeting. The council voted 4-1, with Democrat Schwager voting against. The result was a mailer (find it here: ResidentMailer) sent to every household that said, among other things, that the median tax rate for East Greenwich homeowners had gone up 51 percent since 2011. The flyer became fodder for an opposition that was building. Several residents pointed out its typos and what they said were misleading graphics. One resident, URI math professor Eugene Quinn, did a deep dive into that 51 percent figure. His finding: the median tax increase over those years was 15 percent, not 51 percent. He even produced a few videos on his findings. Town Council President Cienki has stood by the mailer’s figures but no one has taken credit for where those figures actually came from.
In April, the EG Town Democratic Committee started using Facebook Live to videotape the Town Council meetings, since the town was not recording them.
Level-Funding the Schools
Also in April, the School Committee approved a budget asking for a 4 percent increase from the town – the most it could ask for under state law. Even to get to that 4 percent increase, the School Committee had already cut several teacher assistant positions and an intramural sports program at the middle school, as well as dipping into its fund balance for the fourth consecutive year.
While the School Committee is, by state law, its own governing body, it relies on the Town Council for funding, so when in May then-Town Manager Coyle submitted his proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, level-funding the schools, and proposing the first tax cut in decades. parents and school officials were up in arms.
Enter Gayle Corrigan and her consulting firm, Providence Analytics.
The town had hired Providence Analytics in April to look at the school’s finances in response to the school district’s acknowledgement it was running a structural deficit. PA presented its findings in a joint town and school meeting, where Corrigan suggested that the school department’s deficit was just how Central Falls started down its path to bankruptcy in the 1980s.
The town then extended its contract with PA to investigate town finances. Corrigan and her PA colleague Linda Dykeman made their second presentation at a meeting June 5. The main takeaway in that presentation was the introduction of the term “One Town,” which described consolidation efforts that would save the town money.
The report also honed in on fire department issues characterized as potentially troublesome, including what Corrigan called “unsustainable collective bargaining agreements” and “short-sighted employment practices.”
Almost immediately, rumors started circulating that Town Manager Coyle was on his way out.
At a meeting June 8, the Town Council approved the budget, including recommendations from Providence Analytics, with no public comment and loud negative response from those in attendance. The process was significantly different than in previous years, where the Town Council would meet with department heads to discuss their budgets over a series of weeks. This budget was passed but specific line items, especially as related to the items taken over by the town from the school department, were left to be worked out later.
Town Manager Coyle Is Out; Corrigan Is In
The following week, the Town Council met in executive session to discuss a personnel issue that turned out to be Tom Coyle’s job performance. That meeting ended unresolved but a few days later, on June 19, the council met again in executive session, approved a “separation” with Coyle as town manager and approved Corrigan as acting town manager.
There were some problems with that June 19 meeting that would be dealt with in the subsequent trial heard by Superior Court Judge McGuirl. First, the agenda listed only that the council would be discussing a personnel issue. It said nothing about appointing a town manager, acting, interim or otherwise. Second, the votes on both accepting Coyle’s separation agreement and on Corrigan’s appointment were taken while the council was still in executive session. By state law, votes are to be taken in open session. Third, no minutes were taken during the meeting. The town clerk, who usually took meeting minutes, had been dismissed at the start of the June 15 meeting so she did not come to work early on June 19 (the meeting started at 8), assuming she would not be wanted at that meeting either.
But with that court case still months in the future, Corrigan arrived at Town Hall with her own fairly public history.
Corrigan first became known as former R.I. Supreme Court Judge Bob Flanders’s chief of staff during Central Falls’ bankruptcy in 2012. She then moved to Rhode Island Housing, where she was fired, then she sued, then she was rehired, resuming work there for another 11 months before leaving that agency again in April 2015. In October 2016, Corrigan was hired to handle the Central Coventry Fire District bankruptcy as manager. She continues in that role today. She also served briefly as board chairwoman of the Providence YMCA, a volunteer position from which she was fired in January.
Corrigan’s reputation as tough on unions, and her targeting of the fire department during her June 5 presentation, put EG firefighters on edge even before she was named acting town manager.
Following the June 5 presentation, firefighter union president Bill Perry asked to meet with town officials to discuss what Corrigan had said were problems with the department. That June 12 meeting became famous when, in August, Perry filed a complaint against Town Council President Cienki for threatening to cut off Perry’s and another firefighter’s genitals during the session. Several people attended the meeting and after the complaint was filed Cienki did not deny making the remark. She apologized at a later Town Council meeting and said she had taken a class in civil discourse.
Corrigan’s first public appearance as acting town manager came at the Town Council meeting June 26, when she recommended eliminating the town’s Municipal Court. The Town Council tabled the issue after the Municipal Court judge, David Bazar, got up to argue on the court’s behalf, saying Corrigan had not spoken to him about the court and that the court was not, as Corrigan suggested, a money drain.
The afternoon of June 30, the Friday before what for many was going to be a long July 4th weekend, Corrigan alerted town employees via email that the town’s finance director, personnel director and the assistant for the town manager were let go in the first official act of consolidation of town and school employees. The finance director, Kristin Benoit, was replaced by Corrigan’s Providence Analytics’s partner Linda Dykeman, who was already serving as part-time interim finance director for the school department. The personnel director, Sharon Kitchin, was to be replaced by School Department employee Rose Emilio, who had not yet officially been offered that consolidated position. And town manager assistant Pam Aveyard was replaced by Michaela Antunes, who was given the title of chief of staff.
There was only one problem. The School Committee had not signed off on the consolidated positions and it quickly became clear that they were uncomfortable with the undefined job description for, especially, the personnel director. Because of the School Committee’s reluctance and Emilio’s not having even been offered the job, Corrigan left that position open. Consolidation with the School Department remained on the town’s list of priorities, but it quickly took a back seat to the fire department.
End of East Greenwich Explained, Part One. Here is Part Two.