East Providence Budget Commission conducts animated meeting

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EAST PROVIDENCE — He may not be the chairman anymore, but make no mistake, Michael O’Keefe still wields ample clout and he remains the lead voice of the state-appointed East Providence Budget Commission.

At its bi-weekly meeting Thursday, Sept. 6, in Room 306 at City Hall, Mr. O’Keefe railed against what he deemed inaction and inattentiveness to detail during the duration of the two-hour summit.

The afternoon started on a negative note and it continued throughout. Mr. O’Keefe’s dander was initially raised when Commission Fiscal Advisor and city native Christy Healey opened with her update of the Budget Planning Report (BPR) and cash flow.

Mr. O’Keefe, looking ahead to formulating a budget for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2013, asked Mrs. Healey if she had been provided a six-month projection on cash flow by Commission member and City Manager Peter Grazcykowski. She replied she had not, to which an irritated Mr. O’Keefe said he had asked the manager for the important figures since the beginning of August.

For Mr. Graczykowski’s sake, he was on vacation this week and could not respond directly to Mr. O’Keefe’s question.

At that point, Interim Finance Director John Cimino chimed in, telling Mr. O’Keefe he and Mr. Grazcykowski wanted to include incoming Finance chief Malcolm Moore in the matter, which was part of the reason why the figures weren’t quite yet available. Mr. Cimino did say the numbers would be ready in time for the Commission’s next meeting on Thursday, Sept. 20.

Unmoved, Mr. O’Keefe said, “If this is an example of our progress on fiscal matters of the city then we’re going to be here for a long time.”

The conversation quickly turned to the timeline the Commission had set for putting the FY13 budget together then to the five-year plan it was tasked to formulate upon taking over control of the city’s coffers.

Mr. O’Keefe, growing increasingly agitated, noted the Commission had fallen an unacceptable “83 days” behind its five-year plan schedule.

A bit later, Mr. O’Keefe’s fuse was lit when Consolidated Facilities Manager Edward Catelli presented his department’s FY13 capital budget.

The dialogue between Mr. O’Keefe and Mr. Catelli grew increasingly tense after the former wondered why the latter submitted a request to purchase a new Jeep SUV with a plow to be used for snow removal at schools.

Mr. O’Keefe argued whether or not the $35,000 4-wheel drive vehicle, which Mr. Catelli said was also used throughout the year in other ways, was the most prudent purchase, especially with the infrastructure quandary the school system faces.

Mr. Catelli engaged Mr. O’Keefe, the topic moving to the asbestos abatement at the high school and other needed construction projects, though to little avail. Other members of the Commission attempted to interject, but Mr. O’Keefe wasn’t satisfied. He said he wasn’t pleased with the manner by which Facilities on the city and school sides were working together.

“I see a lack of cooperation and consolidation in Facilities,” Mr. O’Keefe said later. “We’ve seen it in Finance. We’ve seen it HR (Human Resources). And we’re starting to see it in IT (Information Technology). But we haven’t seen it in Facilities.

“We’ve spent hours and hours on consolidation. People have spent a lot of time on it. But it just seems to me like we’re starting to slip backwards. And that’s part of my frustration.

Mr. O’Keefe was far from through, riffing an epic rant on the past and current politicians and administrators of the city.

“You can’t go back,” he continued. “You can’t go back to not making your obligations. You can’t go back to not funding your ARC (Annual Retirement Contributions).  You can’t turn a blind-eye to the problems like they (the pols and the admins) did for the five years before we got here. You can’t arbitrarily take junk away from the teachers like they did before. You just can’t do any of it anymore.”

The mood of the room, and the former chairman, grew a little less tense next when the Commission rescinded the City Council directive giving the Associated Radio Amateurs of Southern New England (ARASNE) permanent tax-exempt status on the property the organization owns in Rumford.

According to the Commission, the East Providence Police Department work with the ARASNE could net the group some $2,500, through the department’s Asset Forfeiture program, and allow it to pay its tax obligation.

Things, however, quickly got heated again when the Commission took up the review of a Request For Proposal for consolidated legal services between the city and school department.

Mr. O’Keefe wasn’t receptive to a contribution from School System Legal Counsel Robert Silva, but he especially wasn’t hearing what Tim Duffy, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees (RIASC), had to say.

Mr. Duffy, there not as a paid representative of the E.P. School Committee but just as advocate in general, said the RIASC’s reading of state law deemed the system had the right and authority to maintain separate legal representation. He noted, “Any time there’s a question of money (between cities and towns and school departments) it inherently creates a conflict.”

Mr. O’Keefe quickly retorted, “Tim, I know associations like yours live on conflict, but it’s just not there.”

Mr. O’Keefe referred to the advice of Commission counsel, Karen Grande of the Edwards-Wildman firm, who wrote there doesn’t appear to be anything in Rhode Island General Law or precedent that prohibits the consolidation of legal services.

Mr. O’Keefe asked Commission Fiscal Advisor Robert Eaton to reach out to Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Interim Executive Director David Abbott, himself an accomplished lawyer, for his opinion on the subject

In the end, the Commission voted to proceed with the RPF for consolidated legal services.

The last bit of crossfire on the afternoon started when Interim Human Resources Director Heather Martino asked for permission to post the position of Director of Education (DOE), which would be second in command of the school department under current Interim School Superintendent Dr. John DeGoes.

The Commission eventually allowed Ms. Martino to post the job, but not before Mr. O’Keefe said he would only go along with the measure if the interview process was above board and that a prospective candidate had not already been chosen.

“I’d like to have some assurance that we don’t know already who is going to fill the position,” Mr. O’Keefe said in a not-so subtle shot towards members of the School Committee. “I’ve already heard some things and I hope it’s not the case.”

Feeling slighted by Mr. O’Keefe’s implication, current School Committee Chairman Charlie Tsonos, in the audience for the meeting, asked to be heard on the matter. He responded to Mr. O’Keefe, “I don’t have a dog in this fight,” meaning he knew of no specific person under consideration to fill the DOE position.

As part of its approval, the Commission named Dr. DeGoes, Ms. Martino and an outside third-party, possibly a representative from RIDE, to serve on the interview committee.

The verbal shots later continued when Mr. Tsonos asked the Commission what its plan was to find a permanent superintendent.

Current Commission Chairman Diane Brennan said she would make it a priority though both she and Mr. O’Keefe noted the 90-day clock on Dr. DeGoes had only just begun with the start of school this week. The 90 days that count towards Dr. DeGoes’ tenure are official school days only, meaning the several weeks he’s already spent on the job won’t preclude him from continuing in the post through the better part of January 2013.

Mr. Tsonos wasn’t satisfied with the response and continued to press the Commission to formulate a timeline to find a full-time replacement.

In response, Mr. O’Keefe said that the Commission wasn’t going to “hire” a new superintendent prior to the November election, then have the newly-seated School Committee want to “fire” that person.

And with that, just about, the meeting ended.

Other business

There was some other notable business conducted by the Commission Thursday.

  • It postponed a public hearing on the Forbes Street Landfill Solar Project until the next Commission meeting, Sept. 20, at 3 p.m. in City Hall Room 306.
  • The Commission approved the contractually-obligated promotions to fill the positions of Assistant Director of Training and Battalion Chief in the East Providence Fire Department.
  • It tabled the hiring of three custodians and one HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) specialist in the school department.
  • The Commission approved all other recent hires in the school department, including that of a two vacant 2/5 Psychologist positions, while accepting the resignations and leaves of absences of others. Of note of the hires and resignations, Kimberly Laliberte stepped down as the Oldham School principal before actually working in the position to take a like role in West Warwick. Elaine Allen was approved as her replacement. In addition, Peg Marcotte was approved as the Interim Principal at the Meadowcrest Early Learning Center. The position will immediately go out to full-time bid.
  • Per a citizen request at the previous Commission meeting, Mrs. Healey clarified a $10,000 debit to the Met School in Providence was a quarterly tuition payment for a local student currently enrolled there.
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