Offering a rare insight to contract negotiations with Warwick Firefighters, Warwick activist Rob Cote emailed photographs from two pages of the city’s proposal to the news media and public officials, including the Warwick City Council, on Tuesday.
Cote said the two sheets of paper were mailed to him at home in an envelope without a return address. The only accompanying comments were written in a green magic marker in the margins of both sheets with the words “thanks you jerk” and “bigger jerk,” as city demands pertained to issues Cote has criticized, including the use of department apparatus to make runs to food markets and the practice of allowing firefighters to substitute shifts for one another.
According to the documents, the city is looking to limit substitutions to one change of shift per person every two months. As it is now, Cote contends that substitutions have been used in place of sick time so that fire personnel are capable of collecting sick time pay, as well as for extending vacations and even enabling firefighters to work another job.
The city would prohibit the use of all department equipment “for personal matters, to collect food or supplies or to be used in any manner that does not constitute a bona fide emergency response action.”
Why and who might have mailed the documents was the source of speculation that even had Cote questioning what was the motive of making public a process that traditionally is conducted behind closed doors. Persons familiar with negotiations, from fire chief Jim McLaughlin to city solicitor Peter Ruggiero and former local fire union president Bill Lloyd, did not return calls.
In a statement released by his office, Mayor Scott Avedisian said, “I, along with my executive staff, am aware of the portion of documents that have been anonymously sent to a Warwick resident. While the documents appear to be authentic, upon review, it has been determined that the documents in question represent an incomplete version of proposals. Based on all previous years of contract negotiations, we expect all parties to fully participate in good faith bargaining. Despite this attempt to highlight certain contract proposals, the city will not conduct any negotiations relative to the contract through media inquiries. With that said, we will continue to work in the best interest of all involved parties, with the safety and well-being of our city’s residents and taxpayers being a top priority.”
Cote saw no benefit to either the city or the union by releasing the documents.
He speculated the union might have concluded that, by releasing information on the shopping trips and substitution of shifts, that he would perceive the mayor is addressing the situation and back off.
“It’s a convoluted way of thinking,” he said.
If anything, however, Cote is turning up the heat. As a result of his complaints, the attorney general is investigating Cote’s allegations that McLaughlin knowingly destroyed or at least failed to retain records on shift substitutions as required by state record retention law. Cote initially filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Secretary of State, which resulted in some of their staff coming to Warwick to conduct a training workshop with department staff Tuesday on the retention of public records.
Cote accused Fire Chief James McLaughlin of “lying” to the City Council over the use of “floaters” (personnel not assigned to a specific platoon) to cover those on vacation. The chief advocated for the retention of recruits who had completed training so as to build a core of floaters and thereby reduce overtime costs.
Cote said that his examination of first quarter records found that department personnel had taken a total of 1,105 vacation days, but “not one of them was covered by straight time.” That would mean they were covered by overtime at additional cost to the city.
Beyond the issues raised by Cote, the limited documents released reflect what would be significant changes in the running of the department that could likewise reduce costs. They include:
- Elimination of clothing maintenance allowance
- Elimination for the payment of unused sick leave
- Elimination of the requirement for nine fire engine companies
- Elimination of minimum apparatus, employee staffing and officer compliments
- A 1.5 percent pay increase for each of the three years on the contract
- That effective July 1, 2018 contribute 25 percent of their health coverage costs
- That employees retiring after July 1, 2018 likewise contribute 25 percent of their retiree health insurance
Ward 5 Councilman and chair of the Council Finance Committee Ed Ladouceur said he was “surprised” by the documents.
“I will be looking very closely at all the contract (fire, police and municipal) for serious changes,” he said.
Asked how this might happen, as the council usually doesn’t become involved until the sides have agreed to a contract and are seeking council ratification, Ladouceur said the council should be involved in negotiations and that one or two members should be a part of the negotiating team.
Ladouceur refrained from commenting on specifics raised in the documents and whether, for example, he favored having retirees co-pay for health insurance.
“I’m going to hold back on that until I see a list,” he said. Nonetheless, he said, “I’ve got things of significant concern to me.”
He noted that as a private contractor he has had to adjust his prices to reflect what the market can bear, and that he feels some of the benefits granted employees in better times are no longer affordable.