It’s not every day an angry crowd shuts down a town council meeting. But it’s happened more than once in East Greenwich, a well-off suburb not known as a hotbed for political animus.
So what’s behind this surprising exercise in civic duty?
Sipping coffee at Felicia’s on a recent weekday morning, residents of this waterfront community say everybody is talking about the town council
“I moved here because I thought it was a well-run town, now I think it’s like a banana republic,” said Dan Lopez, a former police officer who moved here eight years ago.
“I want the facts. I’m concerned; I want to hear all the facts,” said Cheri Moss, who moved here 18 years ago. “I want to know what’s going on with the spending and make sure that we’re being managed responsibly.”
Like many of her neighbors, Moss moved to this community of about 13,000 for the school system, considered one of the best in the state. It’s a town attractive to well-educated professionals, where the median household income is more than $80,000.
Many residents seem connected to each other and to prominent institutions. The head of the school committee is married to the chair of the board of this public radio station.
And for many years residents largely sat on the sidelines of local government, said Elizabeth McNamara a resident and local reporter.
“I’ve been to a lot of town meetings and usually there’s not that many people, some town employees, a few meeting regulars as we say,” said McNamara. “But that’s about it often.”
But that’s changed over the last six months. McNamara said most meetings are now upwards of 100 people or more.
In June, the new town council appointed Gayle Corrigan as town manager. Corrigan is a controversial figure. Known for helping steer the city of Central Falls out of bankruptcy and for going after union contracts in the name of fiscal responsibility.
So why bring her to affluent East Greenwich? Republican Sue Cienki, the town council president who’s championed Corrigan, said it began with a projected deficit in the school department last year.
“That’s when we said, ‘the town will help you out.’ The town will help you out,” said Cienki. “We’ll bring somebody in to help you craft a corrective action plan.”
That somebody was Corrigan. She went through the school department books, and then moved on to the town’s finances. She uncovered what Cienki characterizes as years of mismanagement.
“Over the last 30 years, we’ve just continued to say yes to everything,” said Cienki. “We’ve said yes to everything and just raised our property taxes. Well this town council’s intent on saying, ‘no, we want to make sure we make fiscally responsible financial decisions.’”
So the majority of town councilors named her Town Manager. But Corrigan’s approach to fiscal responsibility, which involves consolidating government and going after benefits, is considered drastic by some.
Democrat Mark Schwager was the only councilor who voted against Corrigan’s appointment in June.
“It became suddenly a crisis mentality and a need for emergent action, and that caused us to move too quickly, and not bring the public along with us,” said Schwager.
And members of the public have made their complaints known, chastising the town council during public meetings. Unions and municipal workers say Corrigan targets firefighters and takes punitive action against those who oppose her. The town has already lost a lawsuit for the unlawful firing of a town firefighter under Corrigan.
The dispute reached a fever pitch earlier this month after a Superior court justice voided Corrigan’s appointment, ruling the council violated the Open Meetings Act when they first voted to make her town manager. When the town council scheduled a vote to reappoint Corrigan, hundreds of residents came out to protest.
The protestors were so numerous the council had to shut down the meeting while reporters and television cameras looked on. Residents, including Nicole Bucka, vented their frustration.
“My greatest concerns are that we’re being lied to, and that you need to trust your leaders,” said Bucka standing outside the meeting. “And this is not someone I elected, and I don’t feel that she was selected by a fair process, the way it should have been done.”
The town council rescheduled the meeting and voted to reinstate Corrigan, despite the opposition.
Some question why Corrigan was hired at all, in a town where municipal pensions for current retirees are fully funded. The state Treasurer’s office considers East Greenwich to be in decent financial shape.
But town councilors Cienki and Schwager agree that Corrigan discovered previously unknown costs in labor contracts that could ultimately prove unsustainable.
Corrigan said she would do nothing differently in her first five months as town manager.
“Whenever you’re promoting a change, it’s almost like a natural law that there are certain people who will fight against that change,” said Corrigan. “They want things to be the way they were before.”
Corrigan said she’s committed to reining in town finances. If voters don’t like it, they can take it up with their elected town council, which has the power to remove Corrigan.