The Saturday Morning Post: Oct. 17

Happy Saturday. Ted’s still decompressing from Tuesday night’s debate, so I’m filling in. As always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to dmcgowan@wpri.com or tnesi@wpri.com, and follow @danmcgowan and @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Everything that can possibly be said about Lincoln Chafee’s presidential campaign has already been said this week, but if you’re looking for one essential piece on our former governor, take a few minutes to read this Ted Nesi story.

2. It might have been lost amid Chafeemania, but this was a rough week for the Elorza administration in its ongoing dispute with Providence’s firefighters’ union. First The Providence Journal, whose editorial board rarely sides with unions, published a Sunday editorial that said the mayor’s effort to cut fire costs “can turn into a fool’s errand if the city proceeds on shaky legal ground that puts it at risk of falling into bankruptcy.” Then on Thursday, Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear told lawyers for the city that it was “an insult to the court” for them to file a motion to dismiss the union’s lawsuit after he already ruled the two sides should go to grievance arbitration. While it’s entirely possible neither the editorial nor Judge Lanphear’s comments will mean anything to the Supreme Court once the city files an appeal, both were the talk of the town in Providence and caught the attention of folks at the State House. At Thursday’s City Council meeting, several councilors could be heard openly mocking the legal strategy the city has employed thus far. Of course, it’s one thing to laugh or cringe, and it’s another to publicly criticize. To date, no one in council leadership has publicly called for the city to back off its dispute with the firefighters. Same goes in the General Assembly and the governor’s office. And officials within the Elorza administration – including the mayor himself – maintain they’re confident the Supreme Court will ultimately side with the city.

3. While everyone keeps one eye on Providence, the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters is gearing up for another legislative battle beginning in January. In a letter sent to lawmakers last month, Paul Valletta, president of the Cranston firefighters’ union and legislative representative for the state association, asked for support during the next General Assembly session. One of his key concerns: “Remember when they told you that fire departments throughout the country already work these shifts? Well you should know that the new shift my brothers and sisters in Providence have been forced into is one of a kind in the country…” He’s not wrong about that. As I’ve reported previously, three-platoon schedules are extremely common in other parts of the country, but there is no fire department that requires firefighters to work two 10-hours days followed by two 14-hour nights with two days off. The Elorza administration has repeatedly said it is willing to alter that schedule as long as firefighters still work in three platoons, but nothing has changed yet. It’s unclear what type of legislation the state firefighters will introduce next year, but House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello told me he’s willing to hear them out. “Paul Valletta is well spoken on this very difficult issue and I appreciate his perspective and his efforts,” Mattiello said.

4. Here’s an item from Ted Nesi: “The Providence Journal has a new executive editorDavid Butler, a 65-year-old newspaper lifer who arrives by way of the San Jose Mercury News. For a closer look at Butler’s thinking on the future of newspapers, check out this memo he recently penned (dug up by Ian Donnis). Butler faces the same challenge as every other leader of a midsize metro daily: navigating the ongoing transition from print to digital and dealing with the plunge in revenue it’s caused. The Journal’s financial data is no longer public, but the paper previously disclosed that its revenue dropped from $166 million in 2005 to $90 million in 2013. It was still profitable at that point, though, turning a pre-tax profit of $6 million in ’13. The paper’s readership numbers show no sign of stabilizing, either, with weekday circulation down to about 67,000 as of June 30 and the ad-heavy Sunday edition down to just under 89,000; Sunday print circulation was still above 100,000 as recently as two years ago. Also a concern: only about 3,000 of the paper’s current subscribers are digital. Butler starts Nov. 9.”

5. Here’s another item from Ted Nesi: “If their latest fundraising reports are any indication, Congressmen David Cicilline and Jim Langevin don’t seem too concerned about potential challengers in 2016. Cicilline raised $188,000 during the third quarter, finishing with $466,000 cash on hand as of Sept. 30. Langevin raised even less — $146,000 — to finish with $662,000. Still, it’s a year out from the election, giving them plenty more time to shake the money tree, and a Republican candidate would face extremely long odds in their heavily Democratic districts in a presidential year, barring some sort of major scandal. Across the border in Massachusetts, Joe Kennedy III is sitting on a significantly bigger war chest of $1.8 million, and he didn’t even draw an opponent in 2014. On the Senate side, there is no election in Rhode Island next year, with Sheldon Whitehouse not up until 2018 and Jack Reed not up until 2020. Whitehouse’s campaign had $855,000 cash on hand as of Sept. 30, while Reed’s had $1.8 million.”

6. With Mayor Elorza heading to London this weekend, it’s worth noting that Councilmen Sam Zurier and David Salvatore, two of his biggest critics on the City Council, are trying to require him to file notice with the city clerk at least a week before he travels out of the country. They also want him to file an expense report when he returns. Zurier has called the requirements a “common sense” measure, but council leadership is writing it off as more of a political ploy than good policy. On the council floor Thursday night, Majority Leader Kevin Jackson cautioned his colleagues to not “box in the mayor” when he’s trying to bring new business to the city. Elorza’s office did not comment on the legislation. The mayor has also traveled to Guatemala and China this year.

7. Speaking of Councilman Salvatore, it’s far too early to talk about 2018 yet, but the Democrat’s recent fundraiser invitation did leave some questioning whether he’ll pursue a different office in three years. In it, he wrote, “we have succeeded in making Providence a better place by making difficult decisions, collaborating with our city employees and unions, and working together to sustain our quality of life. Now, when it is more critical than ever, I ask you to work with me once again to build a brighter future for Providence.” Salvatore, who recently became engaged to be married, has dodged questions about his political future in recent weeks, but he is considered both ambitious and talented enough to make a run for higher office, especially if he doesn’t see himself joining the ranks of council leadership next term.

8. What’s next for former Coventry Fire Chief Paul Labbadia? Here’s Tim White with the complete overview: “Almost exactly one year to the day Target 12 wrapped up six months of undercover work on the then-fire chief of the Coventry Fire District – culminating in a wild night on Federal Hill – Paul Labbadia was in Superior Court in handcuffs. It was a stunning turn of events. The now ex-chief was indicted by a statewide grand jury Wednesday and is facing three counts, accused of falsifying documents to obtain a pension from his years as a North Providence firefighter. Labbadia’s attorney – House Majority Leader John DeSimone – entered a not guilty plea on his behalf before Magistrate Judge Patricia Harwood. (In what The Providence Journal’s Bill Reynolds might call a ‘full Rhode Island,’ she is the wife of former House Speaker John Harwood.) The criminal case will play out, but so too will the administrative action on his pension. North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi has vowed to recoup roughly $180,000 in retiree health and COLA payments, and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner has already moved to take back $51,000 in pension payments plus interest. (Labbadia’s pension was on hold for much of the time he was chief in Coventry because that town is also in the state-run MERS plan.) In theory, Labbadia could still get a pension, however. He has accrued additional time in his short stint as a fire chief in Johnston and his years at the helm in Coventry. But Magaziner said this week he would look to fully revoke the pension if Labbadia is found guilty. Retirement officials have called this case rare, so it is worth watching how the state handles his pension after the criminal case comes to a close.”

9. Don’t miss Kim Kalunian’s look at some of the concerns around Governor Raimondo’s decision to deregulate more than 30 professions.

10. Fortune: Here’s what Hillary Clinton can learn from Governor Raimondo.

11. If you’re keeping score at home, the Pawtucket Red Sox have now been linked to Springfield, Worcester, Fall River and New Bedford. You’ll know Rhode Island is really in trouble when they start talking to New Haven.

12. If you follow former Providence Phoenix editor Philip Eil on Twitter (and you should), you’re probably familiar with his ongoing tussle with the federal government over the Freedom of Information Act. I asked Phil to provide a quick update on where things stand: “On February 14, 2012, Dr. Paul Volkman – the ‘largest physician dispenser of oxycodone in the U.S. from 2003-2005‘ – was sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison. The sentence followed an eight-week, 80-witness trial in federal court in Cincinnati. On the day of his conviction, an ABC-affiliate in Chicago dubbed Volkman the ‘Pill Mill Killer.’ This may not sound like a Rhode Island story. But it has become one. Since 2009, I’ve been working on a book about Volkman, who went to college and medical school with my father. I have interviewed more than 95 people, across 19 states – including Volkman, himself. When Volkman’s trial ended, I made a request to the court clerk to see the 200-plus exhibits shown during the trial, including prescription slips, death certificates, and autopsy reports. This request was denied, as were subsequent requests to the Ohio U.S. Attorney’s office, the clerk of the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and the judge who presided over the case. So in February 2012, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking to see the materials shown during the trial. It took the DOJ more than three years to process the request. The agency withheld more than 85% of the pages and redacted most of the ‘released’ pages to the point of uselessness. The document-sharing news site MuckRock has called my experience a ‘nightmare.‘ Earlier this year, the Rhode Island ACLU agreed to take on my case, and, with the help of two Providence-based pro bono attorneys, we filed a suit in March against the Drug Enforcement Administration demanding release of the evidence. The complaint, which was filed in Rhode Island federal court, is being handled on the other side by the DEA’s local counsel, the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s office. This coming Monday, Oct. 19, is the deadline for the government’s official response to the complaint. What will they say? How long will it take for me to get these documents? Will I get these documents at all? I don’t know. But I do know this: it’s been more than four years and five months since this trial ended, and the vast majority of this evidence – which sent a man to prison for four consecutive life terms – hasn’t been released to the public. That isn’t how our democracy is supposed to work. If you care about the 6th Amendment (which guarantees all citizens a right to a public trial), if you care about the Freedom of Information Act (which looks more and more broken by the day), if you care about how your tax dollars are being spent and who is being prosecuted in your name, then you care about this lawsuit. One would think that the ‘most transparent administration in history‘ would be quick to release trial evidence. But that hasn’t happened in this case, even when Volkman’s appeals traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We’re used to watching the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s office send crooked politicians to prison. On Monday, we’ll learn more about how it plans to handle a FOIA lawsuit filed by a local journalist.”

13. Providence has become a leader when it comes to filing antitrust lawsuits in recent years.

14. It didn’t take long for candidates to start lining up to replace Republican Sen. Christopher Ottiano, who announced he is stepping down to take a job at Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island. RIPR’s Ian Donnis reported that former Rep. Amy Rice, a Democrat, is considering tossing her hat in the ring. East Bay RI reported that Portsmouth Councilman James Seveney, also a Democrat, plans to seek the seat. So will the Republicans field a candidate? (Update: The Providence Journal’s Kathy Gregg was first to report on both Rice and Seveney.) Count on it, says Brandon Bell, chairman of the state Republican Party. Bell said he expects to have more details on a candidate next week. If necessary, a special primary election will be held Dec. 1. The general election is Jan. 5.

15. Friday news dump: William Sequino is out as executive director of the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank (a.k.a. the revamped Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency, following an overhaul by Governor Raimondo and Treasurer Magaziner). Former Citizens Bank treasurer Joe Dewhirst has been named interim executive director while the board searches for a permanent leader.

16. Coming on Wednesday: A 5K road race to benefit Providence Journal reporter Bill Malinowski, who is battling ALS. Sign up or make a donation here.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Dr. Annie De Groot, CEO of EpiVax. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sunday nights at 6 on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. See you back here next Saturday morning.

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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