After some heated discussion, the Town Council voted 3-1 to add a nonbinding referendum question to the November ballot that would ask voters if they thought the town and fire district should merge.
Councilman Mike Kiernan voted against the plan.
“The knee-jerk reaction is going to be, “Of course we should merge,” Kiernan said during the debate. “This question on its face is biased.… it doesn’t provide the detail needed.”
“Why do we have two separate, independent governments for a town of 13,000?” countered Cianciolo. “Placing this referendum on the ballot is, number one, an opportunity to educate the people about how their town runs. We’ll also get their opinion.”
Fire Commissioner Chairman Steve Bartlett told council members the issue of merging the two entities had been looked at before, including in the past year, and that there was no “material benefit” to be had by merging.
The Fire District should be looking at regionalization, not consolidation, he said. “We don’t need 39 little fiefdoms operating in Rhode Island.”
“I’m real concerned that this issue keeps coming up and I know that there’s some political reasons for it to keep coming up but there’s no real benefit to the taxpayer here that I’ve been able to see or understand,” said former Fire District Commission Chair Doug Axelson.
The issue came up most recently after the 2010 general election and the Planning Committee of the Fire District conducted a study on the issue, offering no recommendations.
Fire Commissioner Mark Schwager served on the Planning Committee that drafted the report. The former Town Council member and current candidate for the District 33 House seat said the report was a thorough explanation of the Fire District.
“It’s a 97-page report, with history of the East Greenwich Fire District and examples of districts that have merged with towns and with ones that have not merged,” he said. "I think it's the best report available."
(You can find the report here – scroll down on the page to under "District News.")
“No one is saying the Fire District commissioners are acting in bad faith … but I think the governance structure of the Fire District is susceptible to shananigans,” Cianciolo said. “Someone could show up at that meeting with 25 to 30 people and put their own slate of people in that could be contrary to what the chief thinks should be done to run the operation efficiently. Or contrary to what the taxpayers want. I’d like to ask the voters in this town the question.”
Mark Gee serves as a Fire District commissioner as well as on the Town Council. He said he wished the Fire District was more opened minded.
“I was disappointed and amazed that we would have so much conflict and bad blood … simply because a commissioner asked, ‘Can we do this job differently? Can we do it better?’ Seeking a response that is not critical but that is at least open minded.”
Town Council President Michael Isaacs said he would support a recommendation made by Schwager that a community forum be held before the election to education residents as to the pros and cons of merging.
“It’s highly appropriate to explore that further.… To educate the voters on the pros and cons and then let the voters decide,” said Isaacs. “It’s ... appropriate to ask the voters if they want to pursue looking at this.”
After the motion passed 3-1, Isaacs said the Council could vote at the next meeting on setting up a joint forum with the Fire District.
Fire Commissioner Phillip Higgins said afterward he thought merging the two entities would be bad for the Fire District.
There would be a "loss of focus," he said. "You become one pea in the pod."
Text of the referendum question to appear on the November ballot:
Some Rhode Island cities and towns maintain their own municipal fire departments while others are served by independent fire district(s). East Greenwich is served by the East Greenwich Fire District which is separate from the Town of East Greenwich government.
Are you in favor of merging the East Greenwich Fire District into the Town of East Greenwich, the result of which would be that the Town would maintain a municipal fire department and the separate Fire District would cease to exist?