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Letter: Paré didn’t promote would-be fire chief to protect his own salary

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence’s public safety commissioner told the City Council president last month that he had a potential candidate to be the city’s new fire chief, but said he wouldn’t appoint the person unless his own salary was restored back to its previous level.

The revelation has led City Councilman James Taylor, a former fire battalion chief, to file an ethics complaint against Paré.

In the letter, dated Nov. 4 and obtained by Target 12, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré wrote to Council President Sabina Matos that he would need the salary change prior to appointing a fire chief to the long-vacant position.

Paré confirmed to Target 12 on Wednesday that the candidate referenced in the letter is Assistant Chief Michael Bates.

The letter sheds more light on an ongoing dispute between the commissioner, who is part of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration, and the City Council. The council cut Paré’s salary by $40,000 in the budget that passed in July, and came close to removing the fire chief’s salary altogether.

But after the finance committee de-funded the fire chief’s job, the full council restored the money just before passing the budget. The cut to Paré’s salary remained in place, however, so the Elorza administration has been paying Paré his full $162,000 pay by using money from the unfilled chief job since July. (Paré, a retired R.I. State Police colonel, also receives a state pension of about $106,000 a year.)

Paré serves as acting fire chief in addition to his commissioner’s duties, but hiring a fire chief would mean he would get his pay cut to $125,000 a year.

In the letter, Paré writes that he and Matos met in October to discuss the potential candidate for fire chief. He says they agreed that it was in the city’s best interest to have a fire chief, and talked about the budgeting issue around Paré’s salary.

He writes that Matos later told him she did not have the council’s support to “restore the salary of the Commissioner of Public Safety.”

“Without council approval for the budget adjustment, I cannot appoint a fire chief for the Providence Fire Department despite our mutual desire to do so,” Paré wrote.

He asks Matos for an answer on the salary issue by Dec. 31, which is the same day Bates, who is 60, is scheduled for mandatory retirement. The council is currently considering passing an ordinance to change the retirement age to 63 for assistant chiefs, which would allow Bates to stay on with the department. (There is currently only one other assistant chief with the department, who is not near retirement age.)

A special council meeting is scheduled for Thursday to vote on the ordinance.

“The Commissioner of Public Safety is inappropriately using his office to enrich himself personally,” Councilman Taylor wrote in an email to Target 12 when asked about the letter. “His intention is clearly self-serving, and I find it offensive. If something like this came to his attention in his previous position surely he would have it investigated, at a bare minimum it is unethical.” He referred to the situation as a “quid pro quo.”

Taylor also said he filed an ethics complaint with the city law department Wednesday afternoon. The complaint, provided to Target 12, alleges “misuse of position” by Paré.

“I believe that Commissioner Paré’s refusal to appoint a fire chief unless this quid pro quo occurs creates a deep ethical conflict as the commissioner is using his position for his own personal gain,” Taylor wrote in the complaint. He attached a copy of the letter sent to Matos.

Ethics complaints are vetted by the Providence Ethics Commission before getting an “initial determination” to investigate them or not.

Paré shot back at Taylor, telling Target 12: “It is preposterous that Councilman Taylor makes an ethical complaint about the circumstances of appointing a fire chief, based on his record of unethical behavior and dishonesty while a member of the Providence Fire Department. Councilman Taylor continues to be offended for not being selected as the Providence Fire Chief four years ago.”

Taylor is a retired battalion chief with the Providence Fire Department. Paré said last week he thought Taylor had a “vendetta” against him.

Matos did not respond to Paré’s letter, according to council spokesperson Billy Kepner.

“Commissioner Paré is absolutely correct that I am a strong supporter of appointing a fire chief. I think it’s extremely disappointing that we’ve gone so long without one,” Matos said in an email. “However, it’s unfortunate that the commissioner has conditioned his appointment of a fire chief with us restoring his salary increase; one which the council has yet to approve.”

Paré’s salary was the subject of discussion at a finance committee meeting last week about raising the retirement age for assistant chiefs.

Taylor asked at the meeting why Bates wasn’t being elevated to the vacant fire chief job now, which would eliminate the need for Bates to retire at the end of the year.

“Why don’t we make him the chief today?” Taylor asked Paré.

“I’m not going to discuss personnel matters in an open forum,” Paré responded.

Paré argued Taylor’s grudge against him is the reason the council cut his salary by $40,000 in the first place. (Council leaders said they cut the pay to a lower grade because it was never formally adopted by the salary review commission.)

“This is personal with Councilman Taylor with me,” Paré said. “When he worked for me there were issues, and now he has a vendetta. That’s the story.”

Taylor dismissed that reasoning.

“There’s no personal vendetta,” Taylor said last week. “I love the fire department. He is so arrogant and narcissistic.”

Taylor confirmed that he applied for the position of fire chief when he was a battalion chief, and did not receive an interview. But he said the job rejection was not the source of his dispute with Paré.

Paré said he requested that the council raise the retirement age for assistant chiefs in order to retain talent and experience in the department, in hopes of ultimately elevating someone to fire chief.

It’s not yet clear whether the council will eventually be willing raise Paré’s salary back to its previous level.

“I have not lobbied my colleagues about restoring the commissioner’s salary, but continue to advocate for the hiring of a permanent fire chief,” Matos said.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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