Providence paying law firm $230 an hour to help with fire platoon changes

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the Providence City Council Finance Committee discussed the mayor’s proposed public safety budget for two hours and 36 minutes on May 5, the Elorza administration never mentioned it was considering overhauling the fire department in an effort to curb overtime costs – an announcement it made official 16 days later.

But behind the scenes, the city had already entered into a $230-per-hour contract with the attorney who has become the face of Providence’s legal battle with its firefighters, according to a WPRI.com review of records obtained through a public records request.

All told, the city paid lawyer Timothy C. Cavazza and his firm, Whelan, Corrente, Kinder & Siket, $26,300 between April 20 and Aug. 3, the day after Providence firefighters saw their required work week increase from an average of 42 hours to 56 hours.

While the schedule change has already been implemented, the city and the firefighters’ union remain locked in a legal battle over how much workers should earn for a 33% increase to their work week. The city gave the firefighters an 8% increase on Aug. 1, but the two sides are currently in mediation to discuss a settlement over compensation. Cavazza is still being paid to represent the city.

“Mr. Cavazza’s services were retained to explore legal possibilities and ramifications surrounding the cost of fire prevention,” Evan England, a spokesman for the mayor, told WPRI.com. “The decision to restructure the fire department was made in light of and after receipt of the final [Public Financial Management] report.”

The report England referred to was commissioned to provide an “honest” long-term review of the city’s finances, Elorza said in May. It showed the city was facing a projected shortfall of $11.5 million in the 2016-17 fiscal year, with the gap reaching $19.1 million by 2021.

At the time, Elorza said one way he planned to reduce the future deficits was to save at least $5 million annually in the fire department by moving from four platoons to three. The change, he said, would allow the city to meet the contractually-required 94 workers on duty at all times without having to bring in firefighters from other platoons and pay them time-and-a-half for the extra hours.

Elorza has publicly acknowledged he didn’t inform the firefighters’ union he was making the changes until May 21, the night before he held a press conference to discuss the dire state of the city’s finances. Cavazza signed his contract April 20.

The union wasn’t the only one caught off guard.

Council Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi said he was unaware the administration was already considering making platoon changes when his committee began vetting Elorza’s proposed budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

“Not once was there any representation that the city had hired a firm [to consider platoon changes],” Igliozzi told WPRI.com. “They did have an obligation to disclose that to the council and the committee.”

Igliozzi said the committee could have gone into executive session if the administration did not want to “tip their hand” to the public about a legal dispute. Instead, city officials didn’t mention any potential changes when they discussed the public safety budget with the committee in early May.

“It’s important that there is full disclosure between all branches of government so we can make the best decisions for the taxpayers of the city of Providence,” Igliozzi said.

Platoon changes have become something of a niche for Cavazza in recent years.

A Roger Williams Law School graduate, Cavazza helped the town of North Kingstown successfully implement its 56-hour work week, a matter that was ultimately decided by the R.I. Supreme Court earlier this year.

He and Christopher Dawson, another attorney with Whelan, Corrente, Kinder & Siket, have regularly appeared on Providence’s behalf in front of Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Lanphear since the firefighters filed suit asking for the compensation aspect of the platoon changes to be sent to arbitration. He has argued that a management right should not be settled by an arbitrator.

Before a hearing last week, Cavazza told WPRI.com he was only hired by the city to assist with the platoon changes and has no role in any other legal disputes between Providence and its firefighters.

Whelan, Corrente, Kinder & Siket was established in 2011 and has an office on Westminster Street. On its website, the firm touts itself as being “focused on helping businesses, municipalities and not-for-profit organization navigate labor and employment law and business litigation issues.”

In a statement, England, the mayor’s spokesman, said Cavazza was hired to “provide specialized knowledge and/or experience” on the department overhaul. He said the city doesn’t know much it plans to pay Cavazza.

“While the final cost of legal services surrounding the restructuring cannot be predetermined, the administration would like to see costs remain as low as possible,” England said. “A swiftly negotiated settlement would be one way to mitigate legal expenses surrounding this matter.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

 

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