BURRILLVILLE – The state Attorney General’s office has found the Pascoag Fire District guilty of two violations of the state’s pubic access laws.
The district failed to electronically post the agenda for a meeting held Feb. 13, a violation of the Open Meetings Act, which aims to allow the public to participate in their government. That violation was not deemed to be knowing or willful, and the district will not face a penalty in the matter.
A second violation addressed the district’s compliance with the Access to Public Records Act, finding that fire officials failed to respond to a request for documents in a timely manner. As of that August 6 ruling, a determination of whether or not the violation was knowing and willful was still outstanding.
Both complaints were submitted by Laurie McCutcheon, a 17-year tax collector for the department who was suspended with pay in January.
In a note regarding the first violation addressing the missing agenda to the state office, McCutcheon states she was “watching the state web site for [an] upcoming meeting for the Fire District, no meeting was posted.”
A response submitted by the Fire District’s legal counsel, Jeffrey Kasle, states that the agenda was posted in one of the district’s two fire stations, as well as at the local grocery store and the post office. Only the required electronic submission to the Secretary of State’s office, Kasle notes, was missing.
The problem, the attorney wrote, “was due to the fact that the Tax Collector/clerk regularly assigned to perform those duties had been suspended with pay the previous month.”
In a decision issued August 16, the Attorney General’s office found that, “There was no evidence the Fire District willfully or knowingly violated the OMA, and in fact, the Fire District posted its supplemental notice for the February 2018 meeting in other locations.”
“Additionally, the Fire District re-considered the matters discussed during the February 2018 meeting at its March 2018 meeting,” the decision stated. “Therefore, injunctive relief was not appropriate.”
The ruling can be read in its entirety here. Had the Attorney General filed a suit in Superior Court regarding omission of the February agenda, the district could have faced a civil fine of up to $5,000.
In a separate ruling regarding APRA, McCutcheon notes that she requested records from the district and filed a complaint 30 days later when she did not receive a response. The same day that she filed the grievance, district officials provided 6 out of 7 of the requested records.
In a response regarding why the district had failed to provide McCutcheon the records, Kasle told the AG’s office that they “simply forgot to do so in a timely manner.”
In regards to the missing record, a year end pay request submitted by Chief Harold Carter, Kasle says that officials have been unable to locate the document despite an extensive search.
Assistant Attorney General Michael Field gave the district an additional 10 days to provide a response regarding the missing document, saying his office will then decide if the violation was “knowing and willful” or “reckless.”
If the Attorney General’s office opts to file a complaint on behalf of McCutcheon in Superior Court, the district could face a fine of up to $2,000.
It is the fourth ruling from a state agency to come down on the small department – one of four independent districts in the town of Burrillville – in the past several months.
In July, the Attorney General found that the district did not violate the state’s Open Meetings Act during McCutcheon’s January suspension. And on Tuesday, Aug. 21, the Ethics Commission cleared Chief Harold Carter of allegations of nepotism.
A fifth complaint, also to the Ethics Commission, states that Linda Carter, a firefighter and member of the district’s Board of Commissioners, approved payments to herself, as well as her son, her daughter, her husband and her brother-in-law. It has yet to be addressed by the state ethics board, which meets monthly.
Several employees in the district, which serves roughly 1,700 households, are members of the Carter family including McCutcheon, who is the chief’s second cousin.
All five complaints were submitted by either McCutcheon or her husband, Gregg McCutcheon. Fees to defend such claims often come from the district’s legal budget, line item funded by residents through fire taxes.
Editor’s note: The above article has been edited to include two recent rulings from the Attorney General’s office. An original version stated that the district had only been found guilty of one violation because NRI NOW was unaware of the second. We apologize for the error.