Protesters arrived to an East Greenwich Town Council meeting last month. Their goal: Make their voices heard, without saying a word.
The town council of East Greenwich, made up of four Republican representatives and one Democrat, has recently become a contentious political sticking point for residents.
In response to what residents say has been months of the board withholding and lying, Engage East Greenwich (EEG), a new organizing group, is operating a fact-checking online effort. The group took shape after issues regarding the town’s schools, budget and town manager flared during the last six months. EEG was a driving force behind a protest that took place at the November meeting, encouraging attendance and helping to organize the card demonstration.
In the card demonstration, meeting attendees reportedly held red and green cards, raising them to show approval or disapproval on issues the council discussed and the actions taken that night. According to attendees, it was about ensuring that there was a way for the town to make their opinions known to the council because an agenda released in advance of the meeting did not include the opportunity for public comment.
“We did want the town to have a voice,” Shareen Knowlton of EEG said.
The East Greenwich town government website does not have any agendas or minutes posted online for the current year; 2016 minutes and agendas are available.
Agendas can be found for East Greenwich, as well as other RI cities and towns, at the Secretary of State’s website. According to the agenda for the November 20, 2017, meeting, no public comment section was included on the agenda. The same was true of the November 14 meeting.
The November 6 meeting, however, did include public comment, as did most meetings that took place earlier in the year, excluding special meetings. Consistently, there is a time limit noted on the agendas, most often a 15-minute limit, occasionally 30 minutes.
Renu Englehart, a member of the East Greenwich Zoning Board and an administrator for EEG, explained that the public comment portion of the meetings often are added to the ends of meetings, which she feels does not allow residents to comment on issues before action is taken on them, and furthermore, may discourage participation, as residents may not be able to stay through the end of council meetings, which can run late into the evening.
“There’s no way to get your voice out there,” she said.
Both women asserted that the Town Council has been the main catalyst for the creation of EEG, which operates on Facebook to provide a Snopes-inspired fact-checking system.
Elizabeth McNamara, a journalist and blogger in East Greenwich, runs the website East Greenwich News. She conducts hyperlocal reporting, which she said she began doing through my02818, a local news site, before it got bought by Patch.com. She then worked with Patch for about two and a half years until 2014, when she was laid off as part of a company-wide reduction in workforce. She then moved into doing her own reporting after Patch stopped doing that type of work.
“I thought, ‘There’s an opening there for a news website,’” McNamara said. She launched East Greenwich News not long after, which ran for about a year before going on hiatus, she said.
At the beginning of this year, she said she was already thinking about re-launching the website, and then the Town Council and the school board began to show signs of disagreement over the budget. “It just seemed like a good time to start reporting again,” McNamara explained. She said that East Greenwich tended to be a sleepy town in the past. There were always things to report on, she said, but things tended to be quiet. Things have changed, though. “People really want to know what’s going on,” McNamara stated.
Last month, McNamara wrote a two–part explanatory piece on the political issues flaring in East Greenwich. According to the article, tensions began to build in town following the 2016 election, which saw an incumbent Republican town council member, Sue Cienki, made town council president, and two new board members elected. The other council members were also incumbents.
According to McNamara’s first explainer article, tensions heightened in the early part of this year, particularly after a mailer claiming that the median tax rate for homeowners there had increased 51% in six years. A URI math professor reportedly did a breakdown of the number and concluded that the actual percentage was 15; he produced several videos explaining this, according to McNamara’s piece.
That spring, the budget came to the forefront of the political issues gaining traction in East Greenwich. The town hired a third-party firm, Providence Analytics, to first investigate the school district’s finances and then, under a contract extension, to do the same to the town’s finances. After the findings stated that there were “unsustainable collective bargaining agreements” and “short-sighted employment practices” related to the fire department, rumors about an ouster of the town manager, Tom Coyle, began, McNamara reported. When the subsequent budget was approved, the town meeting did not include public comment.
“When they let him go,” Englehart said, “people were upset by that.”
A week later, two executive-session meetings resulted in Coyle’s job performance being assessed, and, subsequently, Gayle Corrigan, the head of Providence Analytics, being approved as acting town manager.
This decision was later harshly condemned by a superior court judge, in a decision issued last month. The town council was scolded for violating the Open Meetings Act in several ways, including the decision being made in executive session, the vote on instituting an acting town manager being left off the agenda, and the fact that no minutes were taken during the executive session meeting.
Corrigan’s appointment was a major point of contention and concern for many in town. After her appointment was nullified in the November decision, the town council convened again in November and, to much public disapproval, re-appointed Corrigan to her acting town manager position and reconfirmed the actions taken during her first five-month tenure, according to The Providence Journal. She is currently in the position while a search for a permanent manager is underway.
Knowlton explained that she was concerned not just about Corrigan, but also about the larger “way in which they’re [the town council] conducting business” and what it represents. Furthermore, the response to those expressing concern has been “really disappointing,” she said.
Englehart expressed similar sentiments. “We’re finding out that the town council is even as bad as she is,” Englehart said. “She’s bad and they’re worse.”
Knowlton originally got involved over her concern with the handling of a school board issue that took place during the summer. In general, she said, town council members have been unresponsive to residents who want to express concern or difficult to reach. Andy Deutsch, however, a Republican on the council, has been more willing to talk, she said, and has been in communication with her via email. He is one of the newly elected members and the youngest on the council.
“Until Elizabeth [McNamara] started her blog, we were kind of in the dark,” Englehart said. The exclusion of public comment on agendas led to the card protest last month.
“How can they deny it?” she said. “We’re a democratic town, and we’re supposed to have a civic process.”
The group that both women are a part of will continue its work to fact-check the council, both explained. As of print time, the search for a new town manager is ongoing. None of the town council members responded to requests for comment.
“They’re not telling the truth and the only way we can get the truth out there is basically to fact-check everything they say,” Englehart said. “So that’s what we do.”