Was East Greenwich fire fighter Jim Perry fired as retaliation in an erupting labor dispute? Does the East Greenwich Town Council routinely violate the state Open Meetings Act? Is Gayle Corrigan even legally the town manager? These are a sampling of the questions both the Attorney General and a Superior Court judge have been asked to answer as lawsuits and complaints begin to accumulate after months of political controversy and public sector chaos in this affluent West Bay suburb.
The local firefighters union sued in Superior Court, leveling complaints ranging from retaliatory firings to illegal hirings. They say Jim Perry was fired because his brother Bill Perry, the president of the EG firefighters union, was standing up to Town Council President Sue Cienki. Earlier this week Cienki publicly apologized after she threatened to castrate Perry and another firefighter.
The firefighters’ union, represented by labor lawyer and local resident Elizabeth Wiens, also contend the Town Council violated the state Open Meetings Act when it hired Gayle Corrigan as town manager.
“Plaintiffs also seek to invalidate the appointment of Corrigan as Town Manager due to the East Greenwich Town Council’s failure to comply with the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act, RIGL 42-46-1 et seq. (“OMA”) in appointing Corrigan,” the lawsuit says.
Separately, East Greenwich resident David Caldwell made a similar claim, as well as others, against the Town Council in a complaint to the Attorney General Open Government Office.
“Given these multiple violations,” wrote Caldwell in his complaint, “and the extreme importance of this particular decision; the hiring of a Town Manager is arguably the most important decision a Town Council using a council-manager system can make — the Attorney General should issue injunctive relief declaring the hiring of Ms. Corrigan as Town Manager null and void under RIGL 42-46-8(d).”
Caldwell’s complaint to the AG is one of four current Open Meetings Act complaints against the Town Council, according to AG spokeswoman Amy Kempe. Caldwell says the Town Council “committed several violations of the Open Meetings Act” – including one instance brought to light by tweets from this reporter. He singled out Town Council President Sue Cienki, writing she “either recklessly disregarded her lack of knowledge of the requirements of the OMA, or willfully continued to violate the Act.” His complaint has been assigned to Special Assistant Attorney General Sean Lyness.
“If what David Caldwell has asserted in his complaint is true, then the public has been ill-served by the Town Council,” said John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a good government group that advocates for transparency in the public sector.
Marion, who is as familiar as anyone in Rhode Island with the nuances of state public meeting requirements, said it is possible Corrigan’s appointment as town manager could be voided.
“Under the Open Meetings Act a Superior Court justice can void a decision of public body and/or fine a public body up to $5000 per violation,” he said. “To get to that point the AG’s office would first have to find that this was a ‘willful and knowing’ violation of the law, and then file a civil suit against the Town Council. That’s a high hurdle, but not unprecedented.”
In 2016, the Attorney General received 105 open government complaints, according to Kempe, issuing decisions in 15 instances and finding the government at fault in 7 of them. “In the majority of these cases, the Unit issued warnings to the public body or directed the public body to take specific remedial actions,” Kempe said. In one instance, she said, “the Open Government Unit filed a lawsuit seeking civil monetary penalties.”
In their Superior Court lawsuit, the firefighters have already temporarily prevailed one point. Jim Perry, who was recently fired by Corrigan, must still be paid while Judge Jeffrey Lanphear decides if his termination was retaliatory, as the lawsuit contends.
Jim Perry is the older brother of Bill Perry, the president of the EG firefighters’ union. Bill Perry says Council President Cienki is retaliating against him and the union. His wife, who worked in the town Finance Department, was also fired and an ally of Corrigan’s called the police on her when she was removing personal items from her desk.
“It could not be clearer that [Jim] Perry was discharged from his employment because he was the Union President’s brother,” according to the firefighters’ lawsuit.
Earlier this week, Cienki apologized for threatening firefighters with violence if they crossed her. Bill Perry filed a complaint against Cienki for her remarks. His brother and wife were subsequently fired.