City Council to probe process of hiring controversial new police major

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence City Council President John Igliozzi is accusing city leaders of potential “impropriety” in the decision to hire recreation director Michael Stephens for a new high-ranking police job, pledging to call witnesses to testify about the matter in committee.

Igliozzi sent a letter Thursday to Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré alleging that Stephens, who is not a police officer, was not one of the top three finalists for the job. Igliozzi also claimed Stephens had been on the hiring committee prior to applying for the newly created police major job for community relations and diversion services.

“Clearly, the potential appointment of an individual who: 1) was a member of the hiring committee, 2) was not among the top three candidates recommended by the hiring committee, and 3) potentially received an unfair advantage, would raise serious concerns about the integrity of the process,” Igliozzi wrote in the letter.

Paré vociferously denied the allegations in a phone call Thursday night.

“That’s a ludicrous accusation and I’m offended by it,” Paré told Target 12. “It’s not accurate at all.”

Paré acknowledged that Stephens was initially considered for the hiring committee, but said he withdrew from consideration before the committee ever met.

“He was not on the hiring committee,” Paré said.

According to Paré, the members of the hiring committee included himself, Col. Hugh Clements, Jim Vincent, Cedric Huntley, the Rev. Israel Mercedes, Kira Wills, Carla Cueller and Wole Akinbi.

The panel received 42 applications and interviewed seven candidates, sending four to Mayor Jorge Elorza for consideration. Paré said Stephens was one of the four, but did not say where he ranked among the finalists.

He declined to name any of the other finalists, citing the fact that they are presently employed.

City Council members had already given first passage at their last meeting to an ordinance that would have changed the job from a police major to a civilian administrator in response to Stephens’ hiring, while also lowering the salary.

But before the second and final passage Thursday night, the council voted to send the matter back to the Finance Committee.

“The Finance Committee will be calling you and other witnesses to testify and explain whether the above information is accurate, and exactly what occurred in the hiring process,” Igliozzi wrote in the letter.

The mayor and Paré have repeatedly defended the decision to name Stephens to the job, insisting he was the right candidate to help improve relations between the community and the police.

Stephens’ hiring was a surprise to council members in part because the job they had approved and funded was for a new police major, one of the highest ranks in the Providence Police Department. The original job description would have included overseeing police training and promotions, along with implementing a program to divert certain calls — such as mental health issues — away from police and toward other social service agencies.

After Elorza announced Stephens would be “sworn in” as a police major, the council moved to amend the already-approved budget ordinance to reclassify the job as an “administrator of community relations and diversion services.”

The new job description removes references to overseeing the police academy and being a major, but still includes recruiting, community relations and diversion services.

The amendment approved by the council earlier this month also lowered the salary range for the job to $99,517 to $125,905, down from the original salary of $116,666 to $137,157. Ordinances must pass twice before going to Elorza’s desk.

Ellorza, Clements and Paré called on the council to reinstate the original salary, arguing the council was “devaluing” the work. But Elorza has stopped short of threatening to veto the ordinance, and said he supports changing it to a civilian title.

Igliozzi defended the salary cut during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers earlier this month.

“The bottom line is, there is a fundamental difference between a police major in the Providence Police Department and a civilian,” he said.

“The mayor and his people — let’s call it like it is — wanted to hire the rec director to become a police major,” Igliozzi said, calling it “totally irresponsible.”

“What’s next, we’re going to hire a janitor to become the next chief of police?” he added.

The latest twist in the Stephens controversy means it remains unclear if he will actually assume the role in the police department.

Elorza’s office has said Stephens should not have to reapply for the job, even though the council is effectively deleting the old position and creating a new one.

“The position is intended to be a bridge between the community and the Providence Police Department and it is critical that the person in this role is deeply invested in both,” Elorza spokesperson Theresa Agonia said earlier this month. “That has not changed through the reclassification process.”

“Mike Stephens has already gone through an extensive vetting process that included members of the community and PPD leadership,” she said. “Mayor Elorza, Commissioner Paré and Chief Clements are confident Mike Stephens is well-equipped to take on this role, and moving forward with Mike as the selected candidate.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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