BURRILLVILLE – The Pascoag Fire District Board of Commissioners held a meeting to discuss the job performance and character of one of the department’s senior members on Tuesday, Sept. 27, before a packed house of firefighters and residents.
The meeting, which was initially scheduled to be held in executive session, was instead open to the public at the request of the subject at its focus: Deputy Fire Chief Richard Peck.
Peck is one of ten plaintiffs listed in a lawsuit filed earlier this month alleging that the district’s practice of not compensating per diem firefighters for the same work performed as when they are serving as “volunteers,” is a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
According to testimony from Attorney Christopher Alger, commission members tried to work with the firefighters to settle the matter and Peck, the highest-ranking member to join the litigation, told him the complaint would be withdrawn.
“Due to the deputy chief’s representation, I did not provide a response on behalf of the Pascoag Fire District,” said Alger. “It was only by luck that the district escaped any financial penalty.”
But an attorney speaking on behalf of Peck, Richard Sinapi, noted that the deputy chief never had the authority to withdrawn the complaint, characterizing the discussion as, “clear retaliation.”
“He had no control of that,” Sinapi said Tuesday. “He has no legal or other obligation with respect to those complaints with this board.”
Alger laid out details on behalf of the commission, noting that in July, the district received a complaint from the Rhode Island Department of Labor brought by the deputy chief’s son, Lt. Andrew Peck, stating he was not being paid appropriate wages. The district was given until Friday, August 19 to respond, and throughout July, Alger said he spoke to the deputy chief in hopes to organize a meeting with the per diem firefighters – including Peck’s son, the complainant – regarding payment for their services.
That meeting took place on Wednesday, August 3 and according to Alger, commissioners invited the firefighters to bring a proposal to settle the matter at the board’s next meeting scheduled for Wednesday, August 10.
“It was agreed that the board would hold a special meeting on August 23rd to vote on said proposal,” said Alger, noting that the agreement was conditional on the younger Peck withdrawing the complaint.
Algier said he spoke with the deputy chief again on Monday, August 15 and was told that all of the per diem firefighters were in agreement, and the complaint would be withdrawn. The following day, the attorney told an investigator from state that a retraction was on way, and on Friday, August 19, he received written confirmation that the complaint had already been withdrawn through an email from the deputy chief.
Four days later, Alger said he learned there had been no withdrawal via a call from state investigators, and the firefighters filed suit in federal court on Friday, Sept. 9.
“Deputy Chief Peck’s actions in either lying or misleading as to the status of Lieutenant Peck’s complaint could have caused significant adverse financial impact on the fire district,” Algier said, stating that as the highest-ranking member in the suit, the deputy chief had made himself the “de facto spokesman.”
“If the deputy chief did not know if his son had withdrawn the complaint, all he had to do was say so,” Algier added.
“You disregard the obvious fact that Deputy Chief Peck had no authority to withdraw that complaint,” responded Sinapi, adding that his client believed at the time that the complaint was being withdrawn. “That’s what he understood.”
“He was the person interacting with me and I was relaying that to the board,” Algier said. “If he didn’t want to be in the position, he could have stated as such. The board expects that accurate information be provided by the deputy chief.”
“You know very well that he’s not an attorney,” Sinapi said. “You know very well that it wasn’t his complaint.”
Sinapi said the group elected to cease attempts at resolution, sought counsel and filed suit. He also said the meeting itself was a violation of the deputy chief’s due process rights because of lack of detail on the agenda. The attorney said he warned Alger that if Tuesday’s meeting went forward, Peck would file a separate action for retaliation, which is a violation of state and federal law.
“I urged you not to let these proceedings go forward,” Sinapi said, asking what the board expected as an outcome. “If the chief said that the complaint was going to be withdrawn he understood that to be true.”
“I think this board is just looking for a response and accountability,” Alger said.
Commissioners ultimately voted to continue the meeting as Sinapi said he had not received a copy of the email in which Peck had confirmed that the complaint had been withdrawn to give the attorney time to review the document.
But before the meeting came to a close, several in attendance spoke in defense of the deputy chief.
“My husband serves with Deputy Chief Peck,” said resident Michelle Walker. “He is an incredible man of character and integrity You have praised him for years. You have looked to him for leadership. And this is how that service is being repaid.”
Little was said by commissioners, although Chairman Chris Toti disputed the idea that the discussion of Peck’s job performance was a form of retaliation for the suit.
“We are here to discuss one aspect of an occurrence that happened before any lawsuit was even mentioned,” Toti said.
“I’m disappointed,” said Commissioner Carmella White of the deputy chief. “That’s my comment for tonight.”
Video of the complete meeting, recorded and posted by resident Norman Desjarlais, can be found here.