By Steve Klamkin WPRO News
The financially troubled Coventry fire district won a reprieve Monday after a judge summonsed members of the district’s board into his court to hammer out an agreement to keep operating for at least the next 40 days.
“Without casting blame on any member of this board, the board has been driving down the middle of the highway for too long without making a decision,” said Judge Brian Stern, after sending for a third member of the board who had told a town attorney he was too distraught to take part in the proceedings.
He urged the panel to meet behind closed doors inside the courthouse with lawyers representing the firefighters’ union and the Coventry Credit Union, which had obtained a lien on the district’s assets for non-payment on an outstanding note.
Several hours of talks resulted in a temporary agreement, in which the credit union agreed to modified terms that would unfreeze some $118,000 in district assets, requiring the district to make interest-only payments over the next year.
The agreement calls for the firefighters to receive 70% of the assets, the remaining 30% can be used by the district to pay its expenses.
“Where that’s going to bring us in the future, I really don’t know,” said fire district Chairman Frank Palin.
“But, at least it gets us through today. There will be firemen in the fire house today and tomorrow,” said Palin.
“It’s a huge relief, and we could see that on the faces of the firefighters that were here today,” said David Gorman, President of the International Association of Firefighters local 3372, which represents the Coventry firefighters.
“It’s a huge relief knowing they’re going to get something, albeit not all of what they’re owed. But, we’re willing to work that out.”
During the 40 days, Judge Stern said the fire district and union would continue “interest arbitration” with an eye toward reworking their contract. A meeting of the fire district taxpayers is scheduled for early December to discuss the possibility of raising assessments, while a petition is in circulation that would call for filling vacant seats on the district’s board of directors, a potential recall of some members, and other issues.
State police, meanwhile, launched an investigation into a claim by a Massachusetts-based ambulance company, Coastline Emergency Medical Services, which said union members had threatened harm to its personnel and equipment after offering to providence temporary or emergency coverage to the Coventry fire district.
“That kind of intimidation, and threatening a company, threatening employees, threatening to do bodily harm and to vandalize equipment shouldn’t be happening in Rhode Island,” said State Rep. Patricia Morgan, (R-Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick). She said that she called State Police Superintendent Col. Steven O’Donnell, who told her he had already ordered an investigation into the claims.
The union’s Gorman denied any wrongdoing.
Coventry firefighters’ union President David Gorman and union attorney Elizabeth Wiens talks with reporters. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News