Mayor Joseph Solomon isn’t in a rush to name the next fire chief, a post that has been filled by acting chief Marcel Fontenault since last May when James McLaughlin retired. Now Fontenault plans to retire effective March 17.
In an interview Tuesday, Solomon said he sees no need to post the job as he expects there will be a lot of interest in the top job from both inside and outside the department. Likewise, he’s not in a rush to name a chief.
So, does he intend on naming an acting chief when Fontenault leaves?
Solomon pointed out there’s time to make that decision.
Meanwhile, he’s pleased with the job Fontenault has done.
“He did the job of three while he was there,” the mayor said. Assistant Chief Edward Hannon retired at the same time that McLaughlin retired, leaving Fontenault as the top in command and in role of filling three positions within the department – two assistant chiefs and acting chief. Solomon said in private business whenever you find one person who can do the job of three, it’s a plus, and the same holds true for government.
Asked about Fontenault’s performance Solomon said, “I’m always pleased when one does the job of three.”
In addition, Deputy Chief Robert Bubar has submitted his retirement papers.
Fontenault, who has been a member of the department for more than 27 years, said Wednesday he had been planning his retirement for some time. “I’m getting ready to move on.”
He said he had hoped an audit of unused sick time pay would have been completed and released by this point, as he would have liked to have that behind him. As that hasn’t happened, Fontenault said he didn’t want to wait too much longer as that would give his successor the time to prepare the 2019-20 budget.
Drawing from his experience when Police Chief Col. Stephen McCartney announced his retirement and people from across the state contacted him about the job, Solomon anticipates calls about the post. Although the Beacon reported last week that Fontenault submitted a letter of retirement there haven’t been inquiries. Solomon thinks it’s early. Furthermore, at that time the date of his retirement wasn’t made public.
Whoever is named chief will face a number of challenging issues, not the least of which are the union’s challenge of the tiered pension system negotiated by former Mayor Scott Avedisian for municipal employees, arbitration over unused sick pay and the lack of contract since last July. Arbitration hearings on the pension dispute have been completed, but a ruling has not been announced. Court action is likely regardless of what side is considered the winner.
Arbitration over the contract, with attorney Vincent Ragosta as arbitrator has been ongoing since last fall Michael Carreiro, president of the Warwick Firefighters, said Wednesday.
He said Solomon has not attended any of the sessions and that Fontenault and attorney Tim Bliss have been representing the city.
Carreiro said arbitration over unused sick pay, which Solomon cut off in June after it was revealed the formula for calculating the pay had been changed under an agreement that was not part of the contract, is not expected to start until this October.
Looming over the department are questions raised by citizen activist Rob Cote and former gubernatorial candidate and founder of Watchdog RI, Ken Block, concerning the alleged “gaming” of paid unused sick time and swapping of shifts at the cost of around $225,000 from 2013 to 2015, according to Cote and Block’s analysis. The City Council contracted for an audit of department records last February, but the contents of that report have not been released. Under the Access to Public Records Act, the Beacon has filed for a copy of the report or for any findings to date.
Asked about Solomon’s receptiveness to consider a chief from outside of the department, Carreiro said, “We always want to choose from within the department. I think we have many members within the department who would do a great job…we have many battalion chiefs, they can lead us past all these discrepancies that have been going on.”
Asked about reports that the FBI is investigating claims of unused sick pay abuse, which Solomon brought up in a recent interview with WPRI, and whether he had been contacted, Carreiro said he has not been contacted and he is not aware of any firefighters having been contacted by a federal agency regarding the issue of unused sick pay.
Fontaunault, a resident of Burrillville, said he feels like Warwick has become his home. He called the Warwick department “a really good department.”
“I hope the citizens are aware of the caliber of people protecting them. It has been a privilege to serve the people of this city.”