Council seeking ‘second opinion’ on Elorza, fire union dispute

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A member of the Providence City Council wants to hire a lawyer to give the city’s legislative body a “second opinion” on the ongoing legal dispute between the Elorza administration and the firefighters’ union.

East Side Councilman Sam Zurier said he does not want the 15-member council to join the lawsuit as a separate party, but he does want a legal specialist to advise the group “about the possible issues, contingencies and timelines to inform plans to protect the City’s interests through the uncertainties of the litigation.”

“I believe a ‘second opinion’ from legal counsel could help because the administration’s legal strategy to date has not produced smooth sailing,” Zurier wrote in his weekly letter to constituents.

Neither Zurier nor the Elorza administration immediately responded to a request for comment, but Council President Luis Aponte said he expects the matter to be discussed on Thursday’s council meeting. He said the council won’t immediately hire a lawyer, but acknowledged he wants to “reserve to right” to do so.

Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Lanphear ruled last week that the firefighters are eligible to go to grievance arbitration over the Elorza administration’s changes to their work schedule. On Monday, lawyers for the city asked the judge to dismiss the union’s complaint altogether.

In August, Elorza restructured the fire department go from four platoons to three, a change that requires firefighters to work an average of 56 hours each week, up from 42 hours. Although the city and the union were unable to reach an agreement over how much to pay firefighters for the 33% increase to the work week, Elorza gave workers an 8% pay increase.

By moving from four platoons to three, Elorza has said the city will have more breathing room to ensure that it has the contractually-required 94 firefighters on duty at all times before it needs to callback members of other platoons and pay them overtime for the extra hours. The firefighters’ union has said Providence could accomplish the same goal by hiring more firefighters.

Because shift changes are a management right, the City Council has largely remained silent since Elorza made his announcement. The group met behind closed doors with city lawyers on the matter last Tuesday, two days before Lanphear released his decision.

In his letter, Zurier said Lanphear’s ruling “raises a cautionary flag with regard to the substantial risks the current legal course entails.”

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan 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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