PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A high-ranking official at the Providence Department of Public Works is suing City Councilman Michael Correia, after Correia sent a text message alluding to his demotion during city budget talks.
Michael McKenna, the deputy public works director, on Friday filed both a defamation lawsuit in Superior Court and a complaint with the Providence Ethics Commission against Correia.
Both claims revolve around an allegation that Correia, D-Ward 6, offered budget line items, including the elimination of McKenna’s job, to highway superintendent Sal Solomon in exchange for DPW work in his ward.
Target 12 reported in June that the city’s human resources department opened an internal investigation into the text messages between the two men.
The lawsuit also claims that Correia has made false statements for years about McKenna to other city employees, including that he is untrustworthy, lazy and was “illegally discriminating against city employees on the basis of race or ethnicity.”
McKenna says the comments began in 2015, but ramped up after McKenna expressed support for a “ward rotation” policy at the DPW which would provide a more equitable system for DPW requests “based on need and urgency, rather than political status or favoritism.”
The separate ethics complaint alleges Correia, who is the chairman of the Committee on Public Works, misuses his position and “utilizes DPW assets, resources and personnel for political and personal gain.”
In the texts obtained by Target 12 in June, Correia sent Solomon a list of items he needed picked up in his ward. Solomon replied in all caps, “WHAT ARE THESE PICK UPS WORTH TO YOU.”
Correia replied, “McKenna’s demotion,” referring to the DPW deputy director. He also listed dollar figures for street sweeping and weed whackers.
Mayor Jorge Elorza later said that the discussion about demoting McKenna held up budget negotiations between his office and City Council leadership, describing the issue as “petty.”
“They wanted to eliminate that position because a particular councilperson has a personal problem with that particular deputy,” Elorza said in July.
In an interview Friday with Target 12, McKenna said, “The fact that that process was impeded by someone’s personal gripe or complaint, that’s unsatisfactory. No taxpayer deserves that, they deserve to have fair and honest government.”
McKenna’s attorney, Jeremy Rix, said Correia was spreading “vicious lies” about his client.
“I’ve never had a negative interaction with any member of the City Council,” McKenna said. He described the text message from June as “shocking.”
The ethics complaint alleges Correia uses his position as a councilor to “undermine the chain of command” at the DPW and circumvent the “proper channels” for DPW-related requests.
A cell phone number where Correia could previously be reached was no longer in service on Friday. City Council spokesperson Billy Kepner said the council would not comment on litigation.
After the text messages surfaced in June, Correia told Target 12 that he felt the city didn’t need a deputy director. Asked about the text that suggested he would have McKenna demoted, Correia added: “I should’ve just said the deputy director spot.”
The city’s public works department didn’t have a deputy director for some years, but reinstated the position last year. It was held by Antonio Morabito before he was promoted to DPW director, after which McKenna was made acting deputy director.
The council’s Finance Committee ultimately did not eliminate the deputy director position in its budget proposal, which was released the day after Target 12 reported on the text messages.
McKenna said he was subsequently made permanent deputy director.
Solomon also told Target 12 in June that he was aware of a plan for McKenna to return to his former job in the highway division, but denied having any personal reasons to want his demotion.
“Do I have a problem with Mr. McKenna? Absolutely not,” said Solomon, who is not a named defendant in the lawsuit.