BURRILLVILLE – Voters will decide if the paid union staff at the Nasonville Fire District will be let go at the end of the month, with firefighters from Oakland/Mapleville to cover their calls.
The Nasonville Fire District Operating Committee unanimously voted on Tuesday, Sept. 11 to put the issue before residents at a special meeting on Thursday, Sept. 27, with the question to be poised as a decision between two “budget options.”
Representation for the collective bargaining unit says the decision was made illegally, stating that the ramifications will cost taxpayers money.
The action, which appeared suddenly on the committee’s agenda this week with no prior public discussion on record, was reportedly prompted by a impasse in negotiations with the union representing the district’s 13 employees. The department serves a village population of roughly 4,000 residents and is one of four independent fire districts in Burrillville. Paid staff is complemented by a group of roughly 26 volunteers under the leadership of Chief Joseph Bourquin.
“We’re going to have two plans to give to the taxpayers for them to vote,” said Committee Chairman Gerry Lapierre.
On Tuesday, the committee’s brief discussion of the issue focused on nailing down budget differences between two options: “fully funded paid employees salaries and benefits,” versus, “staff: volunteers, call personnel, per diem through agreement with OMFD,” as worded on the agenda. District Clerk Christine Chretien mentioned that line items such as office supplies, Medicare and unemployment will affect the numbers.
As Lapierre called for a vote on whether or not to put the question before residents, Joseph Andriole, president of the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters, spoke up.
“Are you taking any public comment on that before you vote on it?” asked Andriole. “I’d like to be heard if you like.”
Lapierre asked Andriole if he was a resident, then responded, “No. I don’t want to recognize you. We’ve already talked about this as a board.”
Chief Bourquin later told NRI NOW that the committee is acting on their own, and that he has not been included in budget-related discussions.
“Traditionally the fire chief says, ‘This is what I need to operate,'” said Bourquin, noting that in addition to Andriole, there was another resident by the door of the small meeting room waiting for an opportunity to speak.
“That’s not how an open public meeting works,” he said.
For his part, Andriole ignored the admonishment.
“Just for the record, I think you’re making a mistake, because there’s legal ramifications that we will take against the board,” the union leader said. “Now that that’s part of the record, go ahead and do what you please.”
Committee member Troy Phillips added a piece to the discussion saying, “There’s no contractual agreement with Oakland Mapleville. I don’t know where that’s been coming from. All that was said to them was ‘if something happens,’ which could happen with any fire district around, and the response from them was ‘we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past ten or 15 years.'”
After the meeting, Andriole said of the comment, “If what he said were true, then why are they discussing it.”
Andriole says the board’s action violated the state law that governs negotiations, known as the Firefighter’s Arbitration Act.
“We think there’s a lot of things they’re violating here,” he added. “We think there’s ethical questions in general.”
Andriole noted that two people on the committee have ties to the Oakland Mapleville Fire District, and that the board should have opened the issue up to public comment. Regarding Lapierre’s assertion that the question had been discussed by the board in advance, he said, “It’s not in any meeting minutes. It hasn’t been posted.”
The state Open Meeting law – designed to ensure that the peoples’ business is conducted in an open manner so that the public may participate in their government – dictates that when a public body discusses an issue, written notice must be provided, including the specific nature of business to be discussed.
It was not the only issue on which board members appeared unclear on the law. Early in the Tuesday night meeting, committee member Janet Raymond questioned a resident who was videotaping the proceedings saying, “I think you need permission for that.”
In prior court cases, Rhode Island law has recognized that, “[A] citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”
The committee’s attorney, Timothy Cavazza, has not returned NRI NOW’s calls for comment.
“I think this district is going in the direction of losing tens of thousands of dollars,” said Andriole. “They’re not being fair to the taxpayers and they’re not being fair to the hard working members of the fire department.”
Committee members voted to hold two more meetings to discuss budget items prior to the special meeting September 27, when voters will have their say. The meetings will be held on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 9 a.m. and Thursday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article identified Joseph Andriole as an attorney, which he is not. We apologize for the error.