Warwick resident Rob Cote is calling for the dismissal of Warwick Fire Chief James McLaughlin, claiming the chief violated state record retention laws by disposing of thousands of documents which log information pertaining to firefighters requesting changes in shift.
Cote presented his research to the Warwick City Council during their meeting on Nov. 20, and alleged that Chief McLaughlin knowingly disposed of 1,391 Form 109 documents between July 1, 2016 and May 30 of 2017.
According to the Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of State Records Retention Schedule LG2, Section 2.6.4, “Records that document requests for leave. Requests for leave include vacation, compensatory, special, conference/professional development, personal, holiday, or jury duty,” must be retained for four years.
Further, according to Title 38 of the Rhode Island General Laws regarding public records, “No public official may mutilate, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of any public record without the consent of the public records administration program of the secretary of state.” A violation of this law would incur a $20 to $500 penalty per document disposed of. Furthermore, these records must be kept in a specific type of way and be readily accessible by the public upon request.
Cote claims that in the past four years the fire department has averaged about 1,400 shift changes a year, totaling about 5,600 Form 109s that are supposedly missing or have been purposefully disposed of. This could incur a maximum fine of $2.8 million, which the city would be on the hook for, according to Cote.
Cote filed an Access to Public Records Act request (APRA) in May and December of 2016 to get any documents pertaining to changes of shift within the Warwick Fire Department. Cote was told on multiple occasions that such records didn’t exist, although McLaughlin insists there was a misunderstanding pertaining to whether Cote was requesting a completed Form 109 document or a blank one.
“The fact of the matter is that the document does exist,” Cote said on Monday night, holding up a copy of a blank Form 109 document with “WARWICK FIRE DEPARTMENT” written across the top.
The Form 109 document requires four signatures – one from the firefighter requesting a change in shift or leave for a particular day, one from the firefighter covering for him/her, one from the platoon chief and one from the battalion chief. The document also requests a reason for the change in shift.
In response to the allegations, Chief McLaughlin said the department keeps track of firefighters who request a shift change on their workforce accountability sheets, which are logged electronically from information filled out on the Form 109 document.
However Cote said that not all of the information is transferred over to the accountability sheet, merely the name of the firefighter and whether or not a change of shift has occurred. The reason for those changes of shift is not reflected, which Cote asserts leaves a window open for deception. Additionally, Cote maintains that regardless of whether or not the information is transferred to a different system, the Form 109 documents must be retained anyways.
Cote played a recording from the most recent budget hearings for FY18 where McLaughlin said that: “When the chief enters them into the computer, and after their shift is worked, we discard of that. There's no reason to keep [the completed Form 109 documents]. They're in the computer. We keep a hard copy with the filled out names prior to the time of the change of shift. Once that change of shift happens, it's entered into the computer that that firefighter did in fact show up, there's no need to keep the signed paperwork.”
Cote said that this statement is a cut and dry admittance of violating record retention laws.
“I'm perplexed that the chief sat next to the mayor on one side and the city solicitor on the other side, he openly admitted to violating state law,” Cote said to the Council. “And is it possible that one of these municipal leaders don't know what the laws are when it comes to record retention? I'm a small businessman and I know them. I don't understand how that could be possible.”
Mclaughlin, in an interview on Tuesday, said that he was consulting with the city solicitors about the issue.
“Whether that specific form that he's denoting is applicable to the records retention schedule of Rhode Island, that's something that the city solicitors are reviewing right now,” he said. “We do have our manpower accountability sheets that we do retain – we're required by law to retain them for one year – and we do retain beyond one year. Those are the sheets where if somebody did work a change of shift, it’s right on there. So it's full disclosure.”
In response to allegations from Cote that fire department personnel had used the change of shift system to subvert using vacation or sick time in order to go work other jobs or even attend a softball tournament in Maine, McLaughlin said that he had seen no evidence of such activity, and if anybody has proof of such accusations to please bring it forward.