Providence City Council President Pro Tempore Terrence Hassett and his colleague Councilman John Igliozzi caused a major stir this afternoon by abruptly calling for major changes to the far-reaching pension ordinance they helped pass unanimously on Monday.
The two veteran Democrats want to scale back the ordinance’s freeze on cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), which actuaries estimate could save the city more than $15 million a year as officials scramble to avoid bankruptcy. They said they’re still working on a proposed amendment.
Hassett’s about-face is especially surprising considering he cast three separate votes in favor of the pension bill in recent weeks – one in committee and two as part of the full council – meaning just a few days ago he signed off on the same changes he now opposes.
“Pension reform is necessary, without question, but to severely challenge the financial security of police and fire personnel upon their retirement in such a dramatic manner is not what I am willing to permit,” Hassett said. Igliozzi characterized their actions as a “profile in courage,” GoLo’s Dan McGowan reported.
The councilmen’s press release said the “pension subcommittee worked hard to review and construct changes to protect the system’s future, but not all changes are universally accepted.” They did not say what changed between Monday and Thursday that made them regret their votes.
Mayor Angel Taveras’s office immediately said he would veto any changes to the pension law, and his spokesman David Ortiz rebuked the pair, saying it’s “disappointing” they “would so quickly cower to those who want to preserve a broken and unsustainable system that is bankrupting our city.”
Hassett, who is strongly considering a run for secretary of state in 2014, has taken at least $3,600 from local police and fire unions since 2002, campaign finance records show. Igliozzi has taken at least $600 from them. Those unions oppose the pension changes. Local 1033, which has also given to them, supports them.
Paul Doughty, the city firefighter union’s president, came to their defense by paraphrasing a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” He said he did not talk to either councilman in an effort to convince them to change their position.
(As a number of people quickly noted on Twitter, the full Emerson quote has a different meaning: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”)
“I really think that the truth is, it was rushed so fast, even through the council, that they may have got caught up in the rush as well,” Doughty told WPRI.com. “I think this is a good example of cooler heads prevailing.” He suggested city leaders forced a decision on Monday because they were worried about wavering votes.
Doughty also clarified why he’d said “What’s the rush?” which astonished many because the capital is facing bankruptcy. He said he meant the two sides could have continued negotiating until mid-June, before the end of the fiscal year, and perhaps longer since the city’s annual pension deposit isn’t usually made until October.
Igliozzi served on the Pension Study Committee created in 2004 by former mayor David Cicilline, which released its final report in July 2006. He was also chair of the City Council Finance Committee in June 2009, when that panel watered down limits on pension benefits proposed by Cicilline.
Igliozzi defended that decision at the time, telling The Providence Journal: “The City Council has to be as fair as possible between these warring factions. So we did it 50-50.” But Cicilline acknowledged, “It doesn’t lead to as much savings.”
• Related: Iannazzi criticizes intransigent Providence police, fire retirees (May 2)
(photo: Stephen Schuler/WPRI)