On Oct. 16 Ken Block went on WPRO’s Dan Yorke show to comment on stories that the Warwick Firefighters and the city had a side deal that altered the payment for unused sick time from annual to monthly payments.
Block, who unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for governor four years ago and founded Watchdog RI, also filed an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request for records of any and all side agreements reached during the administration of former Mayor Scott Avedisian.
Less than 24 hours later, Block, who owns and runs the Warwick-based company Simpatico Software Systems, was visited by Fire Marshal Michael Matteson. He told Block he was responding to an anonymous complaint that the building at 20 Altieri Way was in violation of the fire code. The inspection found the plastic neck to an exterior light positioned above an exit door to Block’s office was broken.
Was the visit a coincidence?
Block believes not.
In an effort to discover more about the alleged complaint that had the fire marshal respond to Simpatico, the Beacon filed an APRA for all information relating to the call. Specifically, the Beacon asked for documents relating to when the complaint was made, who made the complaint and how the complaint was made, who responded to the complaint and how soon after the complaint was made was the inspection made.
A response was received from the city on Friday, but it fails to shed any new light on the incident. In fact, it raises more questions.
The complaint form used by the department does not list the time of the complaint (only the date) and there is no date or time of when the form was filed, or by whom. Specifically relating to the data requested by the newspaper, the form says the complaint and the phone number (so presumably the complaint was called in) are both printed as simply “anonymous.”
The form says Matteson investigated the complaint and that he followed up with a call to the landlord to outline what had been found on Oct. 19.
Block didn’t sit still after the visit from the fire department on Oct. 17. He was back on talk radio that day and the Providence Journal reported the incident on Oct. 18.
Mayor Joseph Solomon was troubled. He personally visited Block to hear firsthand what had happened and view the exit light on Oct. 18. He said he planned to look into the matter.
Asked Friday if he is satisfied with the fire department account, Solomon said the investigation is ongoing. He did not expand.
Block has more questions in view of the data provided to the Beacon.
“More importantly, why do they take anonymous complaints,” Block said.
He asks whether the department wants to encourage frivolous complaints and questions what would happen if he called anonymously to report alleged violations at the mayor’s home. “Would they roll out?”
He also sees an issue of granting access to his property.
“Am I required to allow an inspector to come into my office under the guise of an anonymous complaint?” he wondered.
As for Block’s inquiry about side deals, he said after “three back and forth communications they told me there were no other side deals.”
The so-called side deal relates to a 2013 agreement between now retired Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong and then firefighters’ union president William Lloyd. The deal included what has been called an “addendum” to the union contract that allowed aggregated sick time collected above the maximum 140 days to be monetized on a monthly basis (rather than an annual basis). However, it has become apparent this arrangement was never officially approved by the city administration or incorporated into contract negotiations. Regardless, it became standard practice of the department that prepares its own payroll and submits it to the city finance department for payment.
The other element of the side deal related to how unused sick days are accrued, which critics have argued has allowed firefighters to carry over a remainder of their monetized unused sick days in order to bypass the 140-day maximum and collect more in unused sick pay than should be allowable. That practice of carrying over a remainder was stopped at Solomon’s request in July.
The firefighters’ union has filed a grievance over that action, which was denied by acting fire chief Marcel Fontenault. The union appealed that denial to Solomon, who upheld Fontenault’s decision to deny the grievance. By protocol, the grievance is now awaiting a decision via the arbitration process.
The firefighters’ union and the city have also yet to negotiate a new contract, which expired this summer.