Words like “befuddled” and “surprised” are being used to describe the action of 16 cities and towns to sue the General Assembly and the governor over the so-called “lifetime contracts law” adopted on the state level earlier this year.
Warwick is not one of the municipalities that joined in the action, a decision that was applauded by House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi.
Mayor Joseph Solomon reasoned that apart from being costly and taking years to resolve, if cities and towns have issue with the law they would be better off seeking to amend it.
“I feel firmly that instead of going into the courtroom forum, that a worthwhile amendment can be made to the legislation that was passed during the last session, which can be voted upon during this upcoming session,” he said Wednesday.
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena is of like mind with different reasons.
He said Tuesday that he opted not to take part in the suit in an effort to save taxpayers money.
“If they win, we all win,” Polisena said, referencing a December 2018 settlement with National Grid regarding payment for electricity for streetlights on state roads to make his point.
He added: “When we fought for the issue of the streetlights, we did it on our own and we did what we had to do, which is fine. We did an out-of-court settlement where we paid what we owed them but we never have to pay for state streetlights again. That took us seven years. We were very successful and by us being successful the other cities and towns reaped the benefits of me and my community taking on National Grid.”
Solomon agreed that should the cities and town prevail, Warwick would benefit without having to share in the cost of the legal battle. Yet, he also pointed out the city needs to work with legislators.
“I would much rather go down the path of negotiating a reasonable amendment to the existing legislation,” he said. “I think it would be more cost effective for the taxpayers, and I think it would be more expeditiously resolved, and I think it would gain momentum and support as opposed to an adversarial type of approach.”
Bob Walsh, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association said he was “befuddled why they are spending the taxpayers’ money,” as cities and towns don’t have the grounds to sue the General Assembly or the state.
“The cities and towns exist by virtue of the state and can’t sue the master, so to speak,” he said Wednesday. Even should the suit be successful he can’t imagine how municipalities would be better off.
“Mayor Solomon is very wise,” he said.
“I can’t see suing the hand that feeds you,” he said, referencing the need for Warwick to have the support of legislators on legislation it needs.
As an aside, Walsh pondered whether the union should now press for binding arbitration to resolve teacher contract disputes, a measure as vehemently opposed by municipalities.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung served as lead speaker and emcee Tuesday morning at North Providence Town Hall as municipal leaders announced the legal challenge.
The League of Cities and Towns, which is not a party to the suit, was represented at the gathering by its executive director, Brian Daniels, who stood by the mayors and administrators as several spoke about the challenges they say the law poses for their communities. The legislation, signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo, allows for the extension of wages and benefits in municipal and teacher contracts as a new deal is negotiated.
“We’re here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of all of our taxpayers, that enough is enough,” Fung told assembled media members. “We have 16 cities and towns representing more than half of the state’s population here to challenge this law as unconstitutional on the basis that it violates the contracts law because it locks us in to the terms, especially the wages and benefits of these collective bargaining agreements that we negotiated.”
The law firm of Greenberg Traurig will represent the municipalities, with Angel Taveras, former mayor of Providence, serving as lead counsel. The representation will cost $450 an hour. There was no estimate regarding the eventual cost of the lawsuit, which is being filed in Superior Court.
According to a press release distributed at the event, the plaintiffs are alleging that the law violates two provisions of the Rhode Island Constitution – the Contract Clause and the Home Rule Provision.
The release argues that the bill is in contrast with the state’s Contract Clause, which says the state cannot enact laws “impairing the obligation of contracts.” As for the Home Rule Provision – a section that allows for self-government at the local level – the municipalities allege that enforcement of the bill could result in “potentially rendering local ordinances ineffective.”
“Without any specific knowledge of a municipality’s finances and without being at the negotiation table, the governor and the General Assembly have inserted themselves into local contract negotiations,” the release reads. “One size-fits-all contract provisions take local decision-making away from municipal leaders.”
The League of Cities and Towns said in a statement issued Wednesday: “The new law automatically extends the contract terms indefinitely – taking leverage away from municipal leaders, especially when concessions are needed. The parties may disagree on the impact of the law, but the suit is about the State and General Assembly’s interference in existing contracts and in local matters, two clear breaches of Rhode Island’s Constitution.”
Raimondo’s press secretary Josh Block told the Beacon in a statement that her office has not yet had a chance to fully review the lawsuit, but he stood by the bill.
“The legislation passed by the General Assembly last session was narrowly tailored to return to what was the status quo for decades in Rhode Island, and we’re confident it will stand,” Block said.
In April, the League and a few local leaders – including Fung, Polisena, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Polisena, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi and Barrington Town Manager James Cunha – hosted a press conference announcing their opposition to the bill just as it was set to be heard by the House of Representatives.
Polisena was the only member of that group not present during Tuesday’s press conference, and Johnston is the sole community among those previously represented not to be included as a party on the suit.
Polisena has railed against the law since its inception, calling it an “evergreen” contract bill and saying that, if he had to raise taxes because of it, he would put General Assembly members’ names on the notice. Despite the town’s decision not to join the suit, his disdain for the law remains unchanged.
If the law were to be amended, Solomon thinks it should apply to a period of time such as six months or a year.
“We all know, and I know now, that we don’t start to negotiate a contract at the end of the existing contract. Your intentions are made, and you commence negotiations well in advance before the termination of that contract. That’s why I’m thinking of a reasonable period of time that, A, protects the employees, and B, maybe promotes a more serious dialogue and good faith resolution of a contract going forward,” he said.
Shekarchi notes that he knows of no issues with the law as approved earlier this year. “No one has asked for revisions,” he said.
As Walsh said, Shekarchi believes the municipalities would have a hard time winning a suit. “The General Assembly has the presumption of validity and that would be hard to overcome,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey said he has talked with some teacher union administrators who felt the new law has actually helped expedite bargaining.
“I think it is a good law,” he said. “The purpose is to keep the status quo, so one side won’t do something to the other.”
He referenced action to strip teachers of benefits at the end of a contract as happened in East Providence, which prompted the legislation. McCaffrey also pointed out that during the prolonged Warwick teacher contract dispute, teachers worked to rule, not participating in open houses or writing reference letters for seniors applying to colleges.
While it hasn’t been tested, presumably such actions could be contested under the law.