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Weak Leadership Has Made Tiverton a Mark for Abuse

Stories like the one appearing on last Tuesday’s Newport Daily News front page, by Marcia Pobzeznik, are becoming way too familiar for Tiverton.  The details are almost fill in the blank:

  • Town employee is alleged to have abused the town’s taxpayers (“stolen from” would be another way to put it)
  • Town government catches the employee and lets him go
  • The union and its lawyers get involved
  • Elected officials “settle” in a way generous to the former employee and go around town proclaiming how much money they saved taxpayers by avoiding litigation

Such proclamations become more difficult to believe each time it appears that town employees are learning the lesson from former colleagues’ reaping the rewards of (alleged) bad behavior.  We had Town Foreman Bob Martin and his pal, former Town Administrator Jim Goncalo.  Last year, it was an entire shift of police officers led by overtime king Lieutenant Timothy Panell.  And now it’s the fire department’s turn, with firefighter Patrick White:

The case of a firefighter who was terminated in early 2015 for allegedly abusing sick leave has been settled, with the town agreeing to pay $175,000.

That’s right.  We paid him (and his union lawyer, naturally).  The “neutral” arbitrator in the complaint sided with the union member.  Cue the Town Council President:

“Sometimes you just need to make a decision and move on,” said Town Council President Joan Chabot of why she voted in favor of the agreement. “Sometimes the best approach is to stop the court action. We gained agreement with all the parties and we’re moving forward.”

Of course, there’s a downside as outgoing Town Administrator Matthew Wojcik notes:

In the appeal of the arbitrator’s decision, the town noted that there had also been abuse of sick leave between 2002 and 2008, and there was “sufficient cause to stay the award of the arbitrator. According to the uncontroverted testimony of the town administrator at arbitration, the reinstatement of White would signal to other town employees that there will be no accountability for failure to follow legitimate and reasonable workplace rules, and would erode public confidence in the fire department.”

Perhaps the town’s medical personnel should prepare for a rash of calls from residents with injuries consistent with banging their heads against walls, because we’ve reached the point of frustration with elusive obvious.  Yes, being permitted back to work does send such a “signal,” but so does a six-figure payoff after having been the subject of a private investigation that led to termination.

The finishing touch on the whole sordid affair — rubbing town officials’ noses in the dirt — is that the agreement contains a provision that White will not “make disparaging, critical or otherwise detrimental comments” about the town.  The article doesn’t say, but one presumes that the gag order goes both ways.

Union President Craig Committo says that his fellow firefighters have “mixed feelings” about the matter, although Pobzeznik writes that he “declined to elaborate.”  We can be absolutely certain that some among the honorable men believe there ought to be consequences for breaking rules — stealing — and that a settlement even prevents a final resolution to either convict White or to clear his name.

But even any employees who aren’t so honorable might be conflicted by the outcome.  On the one hand, they might find it discouraging that the employee was not returned to work.  On the other hand, they might find it a hopeful sign that he got a big payout and (probably) a promise that nobody in the town government will ever say anything disparaging about him.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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