On the heels of a month of chaos – including a surprise management shift that swapped beloved Town Manager Tom Coyle for the controversial Gayle Corrigan and a bitter battle with the School Committee that left administrative functions in limbo, the Town Council had to terminate a public meeting Monday night because it was unable to maintain order.
Watch video of the entire 20 minute meeting here (it starts to get chaotic at about 14:40).
Town Hall was unsurprisingly jammed as residents, town employees, and their union representation were all eager to have their say on the rash of controversial moved the Council sprung on the community during the past several weeks. So eager, in fact, that they had a hard time containing their excitement.
Interruptions from union members rattled Town Council President Sue Cienki, who bickered and yelled back at the audience. This, of course, incited more yelling and bickering.
“You have to move the meeting,” yelled NEA organizer Pat Crowley, from the balcony of the Council Chambers. Cienki screamed back, “No, I do not have to move the meeting.”
The audience wanted the Town Council to relocate to nearby Swift Gym; the Council thought doing so would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act. It’s unclear why the Council didn’t anticipate the large turnout and hold the meeting at Swift Gym in the first place, as it did when Town Council Vice President Sean Todd caused a local commotion with a sexist tweet about the Woman’s March in January. Cienki often resists holding meetings at Swift Gym, which accommodates more people.
The town solicitor, brand new on the job after longtime solicitor Peter Clarkin was dismissed for unknown reasons in June, had to take the reins and try to calm the crowd. As he spoke, Councilors Cienki and Todd spoke with Corrigan. Cienki then suggested the public leave the building and come back. When that idea proved unpopular, she instead called it a night.
“I’m going to adjourn my meeting,” she said.
The public lingered as the Town Council retreated. Meanwhile, the recent controversial consolidations with the schools, as well as a rash of controversial staff changes that remain legally questionable, hang in the balance.
An email from the Town Council sent later Monday night blamed organized labor for the aborted meeting. “Tonight’s meeting was adjourned early due to tremendous discord and disruption from members of the Firefighters Union and NEA,” it said. The “meeting agenda included a discussion of salary and overtime reports…” The email included links to documents detailing which town employees make more than $100,000 a year.
But both the residents and union members did not overwhelm the the public meeting because of a new conversation about staff salaries. People wanted to talk about all the disruptive change over the past month. Former EG Police Captain Bill Higgins made the case that many of the recent changes are illegal. And one elderly resident said she was expecting the Town Council to apologize.
“I’m older. I’ve lived here for over 20 years,” she said. “I feel upset by the way things have transpired in the town just recently. I believe this should be an apology position. Ms. Corrigan, against whom I have no personal antipathy, but she should not be the town manager.”
The crowd erupted into applause.
At issue are a string of controversial moves that have injected volatile politics into this otherwise staid and upper middle class suburb.
Last month, the School Committee was surprised in the middle of its budget process when the Town Council said it wanted to hire an outside auditor to run its books. That consultant turned out to be Gail Corrigan, who has an earned reputation for making life difficult for public sector unions. Bob Flanders, a possible US Senate candidate who is close friends with Corrigan and used to be her boss, told RI Future he and Cienki discussed Corrigan before the School Committee or the public knew of the audit idea.
Immediately after the Town Council approved its controversial budget, which happened at another chaotic meeting, it began to sever ties with former Town Manager Tom Coyle, a beloved local character who rose up through the ranks through the police department to become the chief executive of the town. With no public debate, Corrigan was named as his replacement. A colleague of Corrigan’s is currently serving as finance director of the schools and towns.
Last week, the School Committee apprised the Council that it cannot make unilateral changes to the school department and a slew of legal questions hang over several of the recent changes by the Council.
It’s unclear when the Town Council will reschedule its meeting.