Questions surround Providence’s severance deal with former COO

From left to right, Providence finance director Larry Mancini, Mayor Jorge Elorza and chief operating officer Robin Muksian. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A $34,000 severance package for Providence’s former chief operating officer is on hold because the Elorza administration did not have the authority to issue part of the payment, according to the city treasurer.

In a letter issued Friday to members of the City Council, Treasurer James Lombardi explained that a $34,215 check to Robin Muksian was stopped after he told a bank executive that the payment wasn’t approved by the city’s legislative branch.

“It was my understanding that a check would be issued and I would send it to council for approval,” Lombardi wrote.

The letter was emailed to the media by Michaela Antunes, the City Council’s press secretary.

Muksian abruptly resigned from her position last month, days after a woman she picked to run the city’s licensing department was rejected by the City Council Finance Committee. Elorza’s office has refused to give a reason for why Muksian resigned.

In a four-page separation agreement obtained by Eyewitness News through a public records request, the city agreed to give Muksian eight weeks of pay and health benefits on top of the unused vacation pay and unused floating holidays most city employees are eligible to receive when they leave city government. The terms of the agreement also allow Muksian to file for unemployment benefits even though she resigned from the position.

The agreement, signed March 28, includes a non-disparagement clause between Muksian and the city, as well. Muksian will also be eligible to receive a letter of reference for future employers from the city.

Lombardi is not disputing that Muksian is eligible for about $14,500 in unused vacation and floating holiday pay, but he is questioning the additional $19,692 the city wants to give her for eight weeks of additional pay. There is no city ordinance that covers severance packages like the one Muksian received and Lombardi maintains the payment should first be approved by the City Council.

Reached Friday, Muksian referred the matter to the city law department. In a statement, Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for the mayor, called the deal with Muksian a “standard severance agreement,” arguing that there is no provision in the city’s code of ordinances or the charter that requires council approval.

“Not only has the treasurer exceeded his authority by blocking this severance payment, but he also withheld payment to Ms. Muksian for work she performed prior to her departure,” Crowell said. “This is an outrageous abuse of his position, and we apologize to Ms. Muksian for any inconvenience.”

Lombardi, who is appointed by the City Council to serve as treasurer and holds a separate position as a senior advisor to the council, has routinely clashed with officials in the Elorza administration and city solicitor Jeff Dana for much of the last two years.

Earlier this year, Lombardi refused to issue a payment to the law firm representing the Providence Board of Canvassers on the attempt to recall Councilman Kevin Jackson from office, claiming he wanted to learn more about the hiring process. Elorza called on him to make the payment.

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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