Now that the city has brought suit against the Warwick Firefighters union to recover approximately $385,000 in overpayments to firefighters, both the city and union leaders have refused to make any …
Now that the city has brought suit against the Warwick Firefighters union to recover approximately $385,000 in overpayments to firefighters, both the city and union leaders have refused to make any comment beyond what has been released to the news media.
Yet Rob Cote, who though multiple freedom of information requests audited payroll records and city documents uncovered the payments resulting in independent studies and the involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation claims the law suit is “defective” and had Mayor Frank Picozzi initiated it after taking office it would have better served taxpayers.
In the release issued last Thursday by the administration, the lawsuit filed in Kent County Superior Court against the Local 2748, International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO (the union) and retirees is based on the Aug. 21, 2021, Marcum, LLP report to the city. The report found that about $385,000 in overpayments had been made to 246 firefighters based on an April 23, 2013, Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) entered into between the union and then-Chief Edmund Armstrong allowing accrual of sick time beyond the amount authorized by the then-in-effect Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Under the MOA, firefighters were allowed to accumulate sick time beyond the 140-day cap that was in the bargaining agreement.
Former Mayor Joseph Solomon ended the practice on June 30, 2018.
The release further states, “Under law, the Collective Bargaining Agreement cannot be altered or amended without the signature of the Mayor and approval from the city council. That process was not followed.”
That is essentially what Cote argued. He said Wednesday it was clear from the YKSM CPAs (the auditing firm that has since merged with Marcum, LLP) report that was made available to then City Council President Steve Merolla and a later study performed by then City Council counsel John Harrington, that the firefighters were erroneously paid.
“It was 14 months before the leader (Picozzi) of the city took any action. No one would have waited this long. They could have immediately garnished wages…they’ve got to take off the gloves and play hardball,” Cote said. He believes the delay is “contrived” so as to benefit former Mayor Scott Avedisian and former City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero. Avedisian was mayor at the time that then president of the firefighters William Lloyd and Chief Armstrong signed the agreement increasing firefighter sick time payments. Ruggiero witnessed the agreement, but it was neither signed by the mayor nor approved by the council.
Cote claims had the city acted sooner, it could have gone after Ruggiero and his mal-practice insurance would have paid the city. At the time, Ruggiero said he witnessed the agreement between the union leader and the chief, but in no way should it have been construed as a sanctioning of the agreement. Ruggiero was not reached for comment Wednesday.
“In this civil action,” reads the city press release, “the city is seeking the court to declare the 2013 MOA null and void and that any payments made pursuant to the MOA were made in error and were not made pursuant to a past practice. Additionally, the city is asking the court to order union members and the retirees to make restitution for the erroneous overpayments made in reliance on the invalid 2013 MOA. “
“I want to make it clear that in no way was this the fault of our firefighters; they are hardworking, dedicated people. This is all the result of proper procedure not being followed,” Picozzi says in the release.
At Monday’s City Council meeting Council President Steve McAllister read into the record that the council met in executive session on July 18, 2022 “to discuss pending/potential litigation relative to Warwick Firefighters. Upon returning to open session it was reported on the record that two votes were taken, and disclosed that one of which was a unanimous vote to reconvene into open session. The other vote was not disclosed at that time, pursuant to Rhode Island General Law 42-46-4(b).”
McAllister went on to report that the undisclosed vote on July 18 “was a unanimous vote to authorize the City Solicitor to seek settlement regarding the sick time overpayments, and to pursue litigation relative to recovery of the overpayments should a settlement not be reached.”
In addition to requesting that the court find the 2013 agreement null and void, the city asks that the court order employees and retirees “to make restitution for the erroneous overpayments made in reliance on the invalid 2013 MOA in a manner that is fair to the City taxpayers and equitable to all parties involved.”
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