Nine months in, Mayor Elorza faces backlash from City Council

Providence City Council meeting. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Minutes after he got word that a group of Providence firefighters planned to picket a Sept. 18 event hosted by Mayor Jorge Elorza, City Council President Luis Aponte reached for his cell phone to begin making calls.

His goal: make sure each of his 14 colleagues on the council were aware firefighters would be standing outside Trattoria Del Mare on Federal Hill when they got there. Aponte wanted to keep them in the loop, but never suggested they should skip the mayor’s event.

He didn’t have to. All 15 were no-shows.

The unanimous rebuff wasn’t the first act of defiance from Providence’s notoriously finicky legislative body – that same week they voted to hire a lawyer to give them a second opinion on the city’s legal dispute with the fire union and passed a resolution calling on Elorza to hire more firefighters – but it was a glaring example of the splintering relationship between the administration and the council.

In the days that followed, two councilors publicly criticized the Elorza administration for what they consider its failure to address basic functions of municipal government: sidewalks and the budget.

Councilman David Salvatore, who represents the North End neighborhoods of Elmhurst and Wanskuck that comprise Ward 14, wrote a letter to his constituents claiming that the administration had informed him there will be no sidewalk repairs in their ward this year. City officials told him they planned to focus on other neighborhoods that haven’t seen repairs in recent years.

“While I understand and appreciate the budgetary constraints our city continues to face, this is not an acceptable response from the city,” Salvatore wrote. “Furthermore, singling out specific wards is not consistent with the ‘One Providence’ mantra we are all familiar with.”

“One Providence” was, of course, Elorza’s campaign slogan last year.

Across the city, on the East Side, Councilman Sam Zurier penned a scathing letter to residents of Ward 2 last weekend, questioning the Elorza administration’s ability to understand and manage the city budget.

Zurier’s criticism stemmed from the administration’s disclosure that it likely finished the fiscal year that ended June 30 with a $5-million deficit, a huge increase over the $28,000 shortfall it had projected just two months before in a notice to the state Department of Revenue.

“[T]hese actions compromise the City Council’s ability to work with the administration to ensure financial stability for the city, as the quality of information we are receiving about the city’s fiscal condition from month to month has been shown to be subject to significant errors and adjustments that are presented after it is too late to take remedial measures,” Zurier wrote in the letter.

The statements were all the more striking coming from Salvatore and Zurier, both of whom have carved out reputations as diligent councilors who generally avoid rabble-rousing.

Fire department changes bring concerns

But they aren’t alone.

All 15 members of the council are grappling with how they should handle Elorza’s overhaul of the Providence fire department, a plan the mayor says will ultimately save the city at least $5 million a year. Everyone agrees that spending an average is $8 million annually on callback overtime for firefighters is excessive, but no councilor has publicly supported the mayor’s plan, which has him locked in a legal and PR war with the politically powerful firefighters’ union.

Elorza’s changes require firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week on four platoons to an average of 56 hours per week on three platoons. He gave them an 8% pay increase for the 33% increase to the work week. The union filed suit, arguing that its existing contract calls for firefighters to be paid time-and-a-half for all hours worked above 42.

Supporters of Providence firefighters protest in City Hall

The changes have created a hostile environment for Elorza, who maintains he has no plans to back down from his decision. This month alone police briefly investigated a social media threat to burn down the mayor’s house as a result of the changes; Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare suggested firefighters are abusing the city’s injured on duty policy; and the union picketed the mayor’s meetup with Providence’s elected officials. (In addition to the entire council skipping the event, only two of the city’s 21 state representatives and senators from were in attendance, and one of them — Rep. Grace Diaz — works for Elorza.)

The dispute is now grinding its way through the courts. Earlier this month, a Superior Court judge said the union and the city could go to arbitration over the dispute, a decision that was widely considered a blow to the administration. Lawyers for Elorza have now asked the judge to dismiss the suit entirely.

Even one of Elorza’s supporters on the council has questioned the mayor’s handling of the new schedule.

Ward 4 Councilman Nick Narducci, who surprised many in his North End neighborhood by endorsing Elorza over independent candidate Buddy Cianci in last year’s election, has publicly criticized the changes during at least two council meetings over the last two months.

“As of right now, I don’t think the whole system has been fair right from the beginning,” Narducci said before the entire council went behind closed doors with administration officials to discuss the lawsuit on Sept. 8. “I think we should have showed respect to the firefighters’ union.”

Others have said they were caught off guard by the entire plan.

In August, Council Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi told WPRI.com the administration should have told the council when it hired a $230-an-hour lawyer to prepare its legal argument for the platoon changes before Elorza introduced his budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year. He said he wasn’t aware the city was considering making changes until May, several weeks after his committee discussed the proposed public safety budget.

“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.

On Sept. 17, the council voted unanimously to hire its own lawyer to give legal advice on the firefighter litigation after several members voiced concern that a judge sent the dispute to arbitration. The group also passed a resolution urging the mayor to hire more firefighters, a plan that was included in his budget but that the city’s finance director said he didn’t expect to happen during the current fiscal year, which ends next June.

The Elorza administration declined to respond to direct questions about its relationship with the council, but said it is committed to working together “to address challenges and seize opportunities.”

“He views the council and its leadership as essential partners, and looks forward to continuing to work with them to move Providence forward for those who live, work and do business in our city,” Evan England, the mayor’s spokesman, told WPRI.com.

Fleming: He needs to build alliances

Looked at from a different perspective, though, it appears the mayor hasn’t lost support on the council as much as he’s struggled to gain any.

Only one council member, Bryan Principe of Ward 13 on Federal Hill, endorsed Elorza in last year’s Democratic primary for mayor. Eight of them backed former City Council President Michael Solomon, who finished second in the race after a third candidate, Brett Smiley, dropped out. (Smiley is now a top aide to Elorza.)

After the primary, Solomon helped convince some of his council supporters to endorse Elorza over Cianci, the former mayor who was twice was forced to resign from office following felony convictions but still had plenty of support in many neighborhoods throughout the city. Five councilors sided with Cianci anyway.

Mayor Elorza addresses the City Council. (Photo by WPRI 12/Dan McGowan)
Mayor Elorza addresses the City Council. (Photo by WPRI 12/Dan McGowan)

Salvatore, the councilor upset over sidewalk repairs, represents a North End neighborhood that strongly supported Cianci; he declined to endorse anyone for mayor in the general election after supporting Solomon’s bid in the primary. He has appeared on Cianci’s radio show to voice concern about the city’s direction several times this year.

Zurier, whose major concern is the budget, hails from the East Side, which supported Elorza by a four-to-one margin over Cianci last year. His constituents are among the wealthiest in the city and considered the most politically engaged, particularly when it comes to voting. The three mayors elected since Cianci left office — Elorza, Angel Taveras and David Cicilline — have all relied heavily on support from the East Side to maintain their political coalitions.

While neither councilor has ever been an avid supporter of Elorza, Salvatore and Zurier have never been considered opponents of the mayor. But their criticism has steadily increased in recent months, especially after they voted against the budget in June.

“He needs to build alliances with the council,” Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming told WPRI.com. “Right now, it looks like they’re questioning a lot of his decisions.”

As those decisions become tougher, Fleming said, the mayor may need the council to stand with him.

“It just makes his job easier,” Fleming said.

Aponte: The administration is getting better

Still, what some view as dissent, others see as city politics in its purest form.

Aponte, the council president, has served with five mayors – if you count John Lombardi’s brief time as acting mayor following Cianci’s 2002 resignation – during his 16-year tenure as an elected official. At one time or another, all of them have clashed with the council, he said.

“We’re nine months in, we’ve had some challenges,” Aponte told WPRI.com. “I think we’ve learned from them.”

Aponte has faced his own share of criticism from Salvatore and Zurier, but does maintain broad support on the council. He said he’s aware of the councilors’ concerns, but stressed that he believes the administration is “getting better.”

Aponte has spent much of the last three months as the middleman in the dispute between Elorza and the firefighters, largely because he has the respect of both sides. He is also keenly aware that both the fire platoon changes and the city’s fragile finances are of interest to state leaders, so he’s avoided publicly criticizing the mayor.

That doesn’t mean he’s urging his colleagues to follow suit.

“The council is a reflection of the city,” he said. “The frustration they have can be the same as their constituents.”

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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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