Providence has paid outside lawyers more than $330K in firefighter dispute

Elorza and pare on fire

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The law firm that has helped Providence officials craft their legal argument in an ongoing dispute with the city’s firefighters has been paid more than $330,000 over the last 18 months, Target 12 has learned.

All told, the city has paid Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder & Siket LLP $332,000 since the outside law firm was hired in April 2015 to advise the Elorza administration on a plan to move the fire department from four platoons to three in an attempt to curb overtime spending, according to figures obtained in a public records request.

The firm is still earning $230 per hour to assist the city in arbitration hearings over how much firefighters should be paid for having their average week go from 42 hours to 56 hours – even though the city and the union have reached a tentative pact to go back to four platoons in exchange for a reduction in minimum manning requirements from 94 firefighters to 88.

It is unclear how much more the city intends to spend on the outside firm, but an arbitration decision or settlement over back pay for the 13 months firefighters were working an extra 14 hours per week is still considered to be months away.

“This is a good first step,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said during a press conference announcing the tentative deal this week.

A spokesperson for the mayor declined to comment for this report. Timothy C. Cavazza, the lead attorney for the city, did not respond to a request for comment.

Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, 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.”

Cavazza, a Roger Williams University Law School graduate, successfully defended the town of North Kingstown when it made similar changes to its fire department in 2013. After the Supreme Court sided with North Kingstown, the firm aggressively pitched its services to communities across the state.

In one newsletter, the firm wrote that the North Kingstown decision “means that the starting point for negotiations with firefighters’ unions has shifted dramatically.” The firm also argued that moving from four platoons to three gives communities the option to lay off firefighters, which forces the union “to expend bargaining strength avoiding them.”

But Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, said Providence officials were led to believe the North Kingstown decision allowed them to make the same changes even though the city’s fire contract isn’t set to expire until June 20, 2017.

“There’s no question the mayor was sold a bill of goods on this,” Doughty said. “[Elorza] was led to believe this would be North Kingstown II and it is not.”

Doughty, who said his union has spent about $10,000 a month on legal fees, said his track record suggests hewould have been willing to work the administration to find savings rather than having the shift schedule changed. He has long pointed to the union’s agreement with former Mayor Angel Taveras, which resulted in about $6 million in savings.

The changes in Providence left the fire department over budget and understaffed for much of the last year following a spike in injuries and retirements. There are still no non-union management-level employees working in the department.

Under the new agreement, the fire department will go back to four platoons beginning Nov. 1. The union agreed to a reduction in minimum manning, increase healthcare co-shares and the requirement that new retirees will have to pay co-shares.

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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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