PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The city of Providence is conducting an internal investigation into whether a city councilman and a Department of Public Works employee traded waste pickup services for budget line items, Target 12 has learned.
The investigation involves text messages between City Councilman Michael Correia, D-Ward 6, and Sal Solomon, the highway superintendent, about the possible demotion of DPW Deputy Director Michael McKenna and extra funding for items like street sweeping.
Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza, confirmed an internal human resources investigation into the matter was underway.
Reached by phone, Correia confirmed the authenticity of the text messages obtained by Target 12, but denied there was any quid pro quo.
“In no way shape or form was it meant to be, ‘You do this stuff for me, I’ll do this stuff for you,'” Correia said.
In the undated but recent texts between the two men, Correia lists some addresses where items have apparently been dumped, and details the items, which include a “TV,” “junk,” “2 mattress,” and a couch. All but one of the addresses are in Correia’s ward, and the other is on the border.
In response, Solomon writes in all caps: “WHAT ARE THESE PICK UPS WORTH TO YOU.”
Correia replies: “McKenna’s demotion,” a reference to the DPW deputy director. He continues, “$250,00 [sic] towards street sweeping,” and “$60,000 for tool weed whackers etc.”
Then he writes: “Should I go on.”
There appears to be a third person in the text conversation who has misspelled both Correia’s and Solomon’s names.
Correia said the texts refer to a discussion he was having with other city councilors to possibly eliminate the position of DPW deputy director from the budget. The position has been held in an acting capacity by Michael McKenna since November. He makes $90,201 per year, according to Crowell.
The plan, Correia said, would be for McKenna to be demoted back to his previous position of deputy highway superintendent.
“We temporarily promoted him into acting deputy director,” Correia said. “I felt like we didn’t need one.” Asked about the text message that suggested he would have McKenna demoted, Correia added: “I should’ve just said the deputy director spot.”
Also reached by phone, Solomon said he was joking when he asked Correia what the pickups were worth. He said “all council people” send him requests like this.
(Asked what the normal protocol should be for city councilors who need items picked up in their ward, Crowell said: “City council and their staff should submit through 311 or call Waste Management who handles bulk item pick up.”)
Solomon also said he did know about a potential plan for McKenna to return, at least part time, to the highway division. But he denied having any other reasons to want his demotion.
“Do I have a problem with Mr. McKenna? Absolutely not,” Solomon said.
He said he responded “excellent,” to Correia’s texts about street sweeping and weed whacker budget items, but did not immediately notice the mention of McKenna.
The city did not have a deputy director at the DPW for a number of years, but revived the position last year. Crowell said Antonio Morabito, the current DPW director, was the first to hold the position last year before he was promoted to the top job.
Correia said he often asks the DPW to pick up bulk items in his ward and he thanks them with Dunkin’ Donuts or pizza. On his Facebook page, he offers updates to his constituents with photos of street sweeping or sidewalk repairs underway.
Correia said DPW employees indicated they needed more funding for street sweeping and tools, so he made the request to Council Finance Chairman John Igliozzi.
The City Council Finance Committee has been negotiating with the mayor’s office over the city budget for the fiscal year that starts Monday. The committee cancelled its meetings on Thursday and Friday night because talks were still underway.
Igliozzi said it’s possible the committee will vote on the budget at a meeting scheduled for Saturday. A revised budget document with the council’s proposal has not yet been made public. He said the council was only planning to cut “vacant positions, new positions and pay raises,” not positions that are currently filled, from Elorza’s original proposal.
East Side Councilwoman Helen Anthony, who is on the Finance Committee, said she’s been mostly shut out of the budget negotiations. She said she had previously heard about the possibility of McKenna’s position being eliminated, so she called the DPW director to ask if he’d been doing a good job.
“There’s been a total lack of transparency,” Anthony said. “There’s been bad faith negotiations going on.”
She reacted with alarm when told about the text messages between Correia and Solomon.
“This goes to the issue of integrity, transparency and process,” Anthony said. “This casts a pall over the entire negotiation. … You can’t get away from this by saying this is joking.”