BURRILLVILLE – One resident presented the situation as a family feud at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Board of Commissioners for the Pascoag Fire District held their regular meeting on Monday, July 9 amid accusations of nepotism and ethics violations that brought out groups of both firefighters and concerned residents.
At the center of a myriad of questions regarding transparency and the use of taxpayer funds was the suspension with pay of longtime district Tax Collector Laurie McCutcheon. McCutcheon filed an Open Meetings Act complaint in January stating that the decision regarding her employment was made in violation of the state’s law concerning transparency. But in a ruling issued July 3, the state Attorney General’s office found no violations of the statute.
A flyer distributed to residents, and additional complaints filed by McCutcheon and her husband to the Ethics Commission, created a tense setting for the Monday night gathering.
“I can tell you that for six years I’ve run this fire department with no issues until recently,” said Chief Harold Carter. “There’s no proof that I have done anything to anybody. I lead this group of men behind you and they save lives every day.”
The chief’s words came in response to allegations by McCutcheon and others that Carter violated the state’s code of ethics by, among other things, promoting his brother Keith Carter to the deputy chief position, and taking part in investigations of his family members.
A ethics complaint against his sister-in-law, Fire Commissioner Linda Carter, meanwhile, alleges that she approved payments from taxpayer funds to herself and her family members.
“I know the firemen do a great job,” said resident Julia O’Rourke. “We’re not here for any of that. We’re here for the business aspect.”
Residents volleyed dozens of questions about business practices at the chief and commissioners, also pointing to an ethics decision against Kevin Carter – another of the Carter brothers – in 2010. It led to some heated moments between residents and members of the fire district. And not all of the answers were clear.
Madelyn Putnam asked if the district had overspent on this year’s legal budget and was told that administrators did not have the numbers handy.
“They should know,” Putnam said. “Somebody should have the financial numbers. You’re in business. You have to know the numbers. We’ve got to get this thing straightened out.”
Irene Watson said it was her first time attending a commission meeting.
“I got wind that the tax rate might go up,” Watson said. “Myself and I’m sure other people are going to be looking very closely because it’s $900 now, and it’s just out of control.”
Ian Chernasky asked if there was an official public job position posted for the two new office personnel that the district recently hired.
“No there wasn’t,” said Commission Chairman David Carpenter, later adding that they were “volunteers,” for the jobs, but that they are paid with a stipend.
Ken Putnam asked the chief of McCutcheon, “Why did you let her go and is it your responsibility to allow her to stay home?”
McCutcheon has stated that she believes as an officer of a non-profit, she cannot be suspended without a vote of the full board, and that the chief acted outside his scope of authority.
“I serve at the pleasure of the board,” the chief responded. “What’s going on here is still under investigation. I will be very glad to talk to you when it’s over.”
But while administrators said little regarding the ongoing investigation that led to McCutcheon’s suspension, talk of work that her husband, Gregory McCutcheon, has done to maintain the district’s generators has been circulating on social media, with some saying he was put on the payroll without board approval.
McCutcheon denied that claim to NRI NOW this week saying that her husband had been hired with a vote of the board to maintain the generators.
Deputy Chief Keith Carter disputed that assertion, pointing to the response he received to a public records request last month. In it, Carter asks what date Gregory McCutcheon was put on the payroll, who authorized it, who signed his checks and what district meeting it was approved at.
Administrator Carmella White responded that she could not find any minutes to confirm the hiring, and that Gregory McCutcheon has received $80, seven to nine times a year via direct deposit, since he was put on the payroll in 2011.
The deputy chief pointed out that the district also incurred legal expenses defending against the complaint to the attorney general.
“This is where all the money has been spent,” he said.
He noted that as tax collector, McCutcheon attended statewide ethics training and was the person responsible for ensuring such ethics breaches would not happen at the small non-profit, one of four fire districts in the town of Burrillville.
What was clear on Monday was that in village of Pascoag, “family,” is everywhere. The deputy chief’s children, Nick and Briana Carter, also serve as firefighters. McCutcheon herself is a cousin of the Carters, and two members of the public who were somewhat critical of the board of fire commissioners – Debbie Fortune and Ken Putnam – also admitted to family ties.
“This is unbelievable. This lady has worked here for 17 years. She knows all the laws,” said Putnam of McCutcheon’s suspension.
“She’s another one of my relatives. He’s one of my relatives,” Putnam said of the chief.
Deputy Chief Carter later pointed out to NRI NOW that members of the Carter family built the station back in the 1900s.
“When I look at this I just say to myself this looks like a big huge family feud at the taxpayers’ expense,” said O’Rourke, noting that residents elect members of the fire commission. “Us taxpayers voted you in and shame on us. There are many issues here. You’ve got to be transparent.”
Debbie Fortune, another Carter cousin told the board, “You don’t follow your own bylaws. You guys have no clue what you’re doing. You have to read the code.”
“We’re not trying to attack anyone,” said O’Rourke. “We’re trying to understand what’s going on. You need to sit down and read those bylaws inside and out.”
“I don’t want to see anyone get hurt in this and the way you guys are going – it’s not good,” added O’Rourke. “We’re all going to suffer. We like our fire department. We respect everyone. Maybe you guys need to get some better legal counsel.”