A freshman city councilman in Pawtucket turned quite a few heads at his first meeting in January when he floated the idea of privatizing the city's rescue services. This week Jim Hummel takes a closer look at what he didn't say.
Hummel: A freshman city councilman here in Pawtucket turned a few heads at his first meeting when he floated the idea of privatizing the city's rescue services. It's what he didn't say that we take a look at this week.
Christopher O'Neill was successful in his first run for city council last fall. And even before he took office, the lifelong resident and businessman spent three months meeting with department heads to see how the city operates.
O'Neill: ``I learned a lot of things. What I saw about the Fire Department is that we were spending a great deal of money in overtime and that maybe there was an opportunity for us to look for some savings.''
So right out of the gate in January O'Neill told his fellow councilmen the city might be able to save $3 million if it privatized its rescue service.
O'Neill: ``There's 37 ambulance companies in this state - and I don't know how many are on the border of the state. So I took time and went to visit a few ambulance companies and learn about their operation. And what I learned as I was sitting there is the resources that they have are 10-fold - some of these companies have resources that are 10-fold of the city.''
One of the companies he visited is right in Pawtucket: Med Tech Ambulance, which employs nearly 400 people. Its owner, Gary Reis, is a former Pawtucket firefighter. What O'Neill didn't disclose at that first meeting is that Reis is a friend - and a neighbor - of O'Neill's, who lives three doors down across the street from the new councilman in the city's Countryside section.
So we asked O'Neill about the relationship.
O'Neill: ``Mr. Reis is a friend of mine, he's a neighbor. I've known Mr. Reis for about 13 years; he was gracious enough to allow me to visit his facility, show me his operation.''
One other thing O'Neill didn't talk about that night: Reis last spring contributed $200 to candidate O'Neill's campaign. O'Neill tried to downplay his relationship with Reis when we talked to him before a council meeting earlier this month.
O'Neill: ``Friendship or not I'm friends with many people in this city after living here.''
Hummel: ``It's a little more than friendship, isn't it Mr. O'Neill because he contributed to your campaign?''
O'Neill: ``I had hundreds of people contribute to my campaign.''
Hummel: ``But the fact is he's a potential vendor; he gave you $200 to your campaign last April.''
O'Neill: ``Okay, many people gave me money.''
Hummel: ``Obviously, but not a lot of people are in the position of business that potentially could be coming before you and other councilors for a decision. And I'm wondering at that point, you know what, you know him, he's my friend and I also have a financial relationship with him. Because isn't a lot of this the perception?''
O'Neill: ``I take offense when you said I have a financial relationship with him. The gentlemen contributed to my campaign this past summer.''
Hummel: ``So you took money from him.''
O'Neill: ``I took money from hundreds of people to support my campaign.''
Reis also has also contributed to now-mayor Donald Grebien, donating $200 to Grebien's campaign for council two years ago and $125 to his race for mayor this past year - and renting him a building Reis owns on Armistice Boulevard that Grebien used as his campaign headquarters. Reis's wife, Beth, was also on the mayor's campaign transition team.
Because of those conflicts, Grebien says he will take himself out of any discussion about privatizing the rescue service - even though he is the city's public safety commissioner. And Reis tells the Hummel Report because of recent publicity linking him and O'Neil - Med Tech will not bid if the city does decide to explore privatizing the rescue service.
O'Neill: ``This is going to take months for us to review and if the administration comes back and says it's not the right thing to do I'll be the first guy to support him and tell them they shouldn't do it.''
Hummel: ``But you understand we didn't hear when you announced it - $3 million and bring in a private rescue - you didn't' say. `I have a personal relationship with Mr. Reis, I've accepted money from his campaign.' And I understand you did from others but you know what the perception is out there - that money buys action. Whether it's $200, a $1000 or $50.''
O'Neill: ``Just so you know I've never been involved with politics before. Money will never buy action from me. The fact that people are going to make innuendos that I'm doing this because of relationships is wrong. And I'm really upset about that. And I'm upset that people in the press are making this out to be more than what it should be.''
Hummel: ``If you had said at that first meeting...''
O'Neill: ``You keep going back to the first meeting. That was my first meeting as a politician.''
Hummel: ``Well now you're in the big leagues, right?''
O'Neill: ``I guess so.''
Hummel: ``Do you take offense when people draw that conclusion?''
O'Neill: ``Absolutely, absolutely. I's a shot at my integrity. And I think that's wrong.''
In Pawtucket, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.