The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

A Rhode Island 501c3 Non-Profit

Lame Ducks

All five incumbents on the Foster Town Council lost their seats on Election Day. Over the past several weeks they have reopened - and extended - each of the town's union contracts, pushing their new expiration dates beyond the term of the newly-elected council. Is it a case of taking care of unfinished business - or is it a parting shot from the outgoing council? Jim Hummel hears from both sides.

SCRIPT

Hummel: ``It was a clean sweep here in Foster on Election Day, as five town council members - all Democrats - lost their seats. And while townspeople were upset enough to vote the incumbents out - it's what the outgoing council has done over the past month that has the incoming council crying foul.''

 

``All those in favor, Aye. Aye...Motion carries.''

Despite pleas from the audience...

``We as a public don't' trust you anymore because we voted you out.''

And members of  the incoming council...

``I would please ask this council, please don't go into contracts that would bind  the incoming council from trying to balance a budget in the fiscal years coming  forward.''

The outgoing Foster Town Council - in two  meetings over eight days, voted to reopen and extend union contracts for the police officers,  police dispatchers, and DPW employees. And that drew a sharp response from those who attended the Nov.  10th meeting, barely a week after every incumbent was defeated.

``What's the necessity that the Democratic council feels the necessity to settle contacts with Democratic unions in a state that's falling  apart, in a town that's falling apart, why wouldn't you leave this to be negotiated by next council?''

Incoming council member, Republican Gordon Rogers, tapes all of the council meetings. He says the town is in serious financial trouble, trying to make up for a cut of about $700,000 in car tax reimbursement from the state. Less than a week after last month's election he spotted something unusual on the council's meeting agenda.

Rogers: ``This is one of the first times I ever saw literally every union contract in town up on one  agenda after all five members of the council had been voted out, sitting as lame ducks.''

Hummel: ``And what went through your mind when  you saw that?''

Rogers: ``That they're up to something.''

The outgoing council defended its actions - at the Nov. 10th meeting, and a week later, when only three council  members were present - saying they were the culmination of months of negotiations with the unions, which secured concessions that included sick day givebacks and clothing allotments from the police. All in an effort to try and plug the budget hole.

What Rogers takes issue with: the contracts have been extended beyond the two-year term of the incoming council, giving it no control going forward over the vast majority of the town budget. The extensions could also be a roadblock to privatization or a consolidation of services with neighboring towns.

Rogers: ``The did talk about the police officers giving back $600 a year in uniform (allotment). We have eight cops, so that's $4,800 savings. But a question was  asked about the medical buybacks that could have been on the table. each one of them itself is $4,800 - times 8 - so you're talking substantial money there, but those have not been bargained for.''

Hummel: ``And unless you're paying close attention you don't understand. It's not that it's being taking out or added in, it's preserving what's existed. Is that correct?''

Rogers: ``Absolutely.''

Lewis: ``If the state had not taken away the motor vehicles tax that they committed to us at the beginning of the year, the town of Foster would not be in this bind.''

Council Vice President John Lewis says the council went to the unions last spring after the state pulled the plug on promised state aid and has no apologies for the council's work during the lame duck sessions.

Lewis: ``We  negotiatied those things in good faith with our unions, three of them, and felt we needed to complete the business we started.''

Hummel:  ``What about the argument of just holding it over, you're so close, if it wasn't October or November, we're at the 11th hour, in effect, binding that council's hands. What is your response to that? That it hamstrings them, in effect.''

Lewis: ``I disagree. Each of these contract negotiations, the town has received  something in return, each of  the unions gave something back to  the town.''

``The election is over. I move the question!''

Foster had the third highest voter turnout in the state last month, at just under 58 percent.

That participation was evident over the summer during a special financial meeting that drew an overflow crowd at the Payne School. And word travelled quickly when last month's agendas were posted online, resulting in a packed room.

Councilwoman Lynne Rider, who said little at the Nov. 10th meeting, didn't hold back when the audience turned up the heat at the second meeting.

Rider: ``This contract going forward will save the town money. There is absolutely no guarantee that the union will agree to talk to the new council. so it's better you get what you can get now.''

Rider: ``To be honest they should be thanking us because I would doubt very strongly; in  fact I know, the unions don't want to open up the contracts and negotiate with the incoming council.''

Hummel: ``Why do you think that is?''

Rider: ``Because a couple of the members have a history with the town and quite frankly they don't trust them.''

Rogers says it's the voters who don't trust the outgoing council.  And the reopening of the contracts is one reason why.

Rogers: ``Why wasn't it settled before the election? It doesn't pass the smell test.''

Hummel: ``What about their argument that this is just a vocal minority, this isn't reflective of the town. What do you say to that?''

Rogers: ``I've gone door-to-door and I have people coming up to me constantly and it's incredible. People want  transparency and they don't like what (the council is) doing."

In Foster, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.