WOONSOCKET — The City Council's rules on "tag day" charitable collections generated a spat of sorts recently between a member of the panel and a local firefighter volunteering with the Muscular Distrophy Association's (MDA) annual fundraising drive.
Firefighter and rescue member Justin Prophet appeared before the Council during the panel's public comment period last Monday night to address concerns raised by City Councilman Roger Jalette on a radio talk show with regard to the fire department's MDA fundraising.
Residents donated a total of $5,500 to the MDA at both tag day collection points operated during the Aug. 25 fundraiser — one on Cumberland Street and Hamlet Avenue, and the other in Park Square, according to Prophet. (Tag days involve firefighters collecting donations into boots from motorists passing through the intersections and also handing out stickers — the tags — to indicate a donation has already been made.)
Prophet said he'd been informed after this year's local collection that Jalette had indicated during his radio comments that the volunteers working the stops "were blatantly breaking the law while collecting."
Prophet said he showed up at the Council meeting because he wanted to ask Jalette "how we were breaking the law, what laws were broken and why wasn't anything done if we were breaking the law.”
Jalette responded that he had observed the firefighters conducting collections at the Park Square stop and noted that there were volunteers in the roadway at that location. The Council's ordinance revisions had prohibited volunteers from appoaching cars in the roadway itself, according to Jalette.
"I saw a person standing between the automobiles," Jalette said. He added that he also saw people standing in the area of the original island, now part of the roadway, at Park Square and stated "that's breaking the law."
At that point Prophet repeated that no citations had been given to the volunteers or arrests made, and Jalette fired back that because a citation had not been issued does not mean "you didn't break the law."
Jalette maintained that most members of the Council had made it clear that the only location from which volunteers could collect was "the sidewalk or on the islands — that's it."
The volunteers knew they were not to be in those locations and that is why he referred to them as "willfully breaking the law," Jalette said.
"They didn't belong there," he continued. "If the police department didn't do their job that day because they didn't see it, how can they do their job? I don't have any authority to do it, otherwise I would have done it," he said.
In response to the charge of violating the ordinance, Prophet said he too had gone to the collection points that day.
"As liasion, all I can say is that I was there as well and I saw that all our members were wearing vests, fluorescent vests, and the appropriate signage that the city provides," Prophet said. "We saw no wrong-doing and when the police came by to patrol, they indicated we were following the laws.”
Prophet concluded that he wished to thank the city for supporting the MDA drive.
"Too often in Woonsocket we focus on the negative; that is what disappointed me, Councilman Jalette, when I heard that you were upset with our collection methods. Again, all of that money goes to children with severe and significant disabilities," he said.
Prophet said he was also available to talk with Jalette further about his concerns if he wished to find ways that "we can problem-solve," but reiterated that "the firefighters don't benefit from this, we give it to the kids. The kids are the ones who benefit, all of them.''
Jalette became testy with the firefighter at that point, asking, "Don't you think I know that?”
He also suggested that Prophet could have called him about his concerns or visited him at his business.
"You can call me when when you have a question like this. Grandstanding at a City Council meeting does not solve anything," Jalette said.
Prophet refuted the councilman's contention about grandstanding and said he was simply talking to Jalette without raising his voice.
"On a positive note, thank you again to the fine citizens of Woonsocket for supporting the MDA and children with disabilities," Prophet said.
Following the exchange, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine noted that the ordinance covering tags days does not specifically delineate where volunteers should stand while conducting collections and that might need another look by the panel to firm up the regulation.