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Providence fires DPW official who filed complaint against councilman

Providence

Providence DPW Deputy Director Michael McKenna (WPRI file photo)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The deputy public works director who filed an ethics complaint and lawsuit against a sitting city councilman has been fired, a spokesperson confirmed Thursday.

Emily Crowell confirmed Michael McKenna was terminated on May 1. She declined to provide a reason.

McKenna had previously been placed on leave in February. The city declined to comment on the reason for the personnel action at the time.

McKenna’s attorney, Jeremy Rix, said Thursday McKenna is “disappointed” in the city’s decision.

“We are exploring all of our options to protect my clients’ rights and reputation,” Rix said in an email. “My client expresses that it was a pleasure to serve the citizens of Providence since 2015.” He did not say whether the city gave McKenna a reason for the firing.

The now-former deputy director of the Department of Public Works is currently engaged in a legal battle with Councilman Michael Correia, claiming in the complaint and suit filed last year that the councilman was circumventing proper channels at the DPW and spreading false statements about McKenna in an effort to get him demoted.

McKenna also added the city of Providence as a defendant in the case in February.

“It’s always important to look at timing when examining cause and effect,” Rix added. “We have confidence that there are many honest people who work for the city and that, slowly but surely, the full picture of exactly what happened will come out.” 

“I don’t know what the city’s basis is for the termination,” said Artin Coloian, the attorney for Councilman Correia. “But the timing is curious.”

In text messages first reported by Target 12 last June, Correia and highway superintendent Sal Solomon discussed demoting McKenna. The texts are now part of the both the ongoing ethics investigation and the lawsuit.

In the texts, Correia sent Solomon a list of waste pickups in his ward, to which Solomon replied: “WHAT ARE THESE PICK UPS WORTH TO YOU.”

Correia replied: “McKenna’s demotion.”

Correia later confirmed that he wanted to eliminate McKenna’s job as the deputy DPW director, but because the position had only recently been reinstated in the city and he didn’t feel it was necessary.

Mayor Jorge Elorza said talk of eliminating McKenna’s position held up budget negotiations, blaming it on a “personal problem” a councilperson had with McKenna. The job was ultimately left untouched in the budget.

McKenna’s ethics complaint claims Correia, who chairs the Public Works committee, “utilizes DPW assets, resources and personnel for political and personal gain.” It accuses him of using his position as a councilor to “undermine the chain of command” at the DPW and circumvent the proper channels for DPW-related requests.

The Providence Ethics Commission voted in October to investigate the complaint, and the city solicitor’s office hired outside attorney Gerald Coyne to conduct the investigation. The City Council hired outside attorney Artin Coloian to represent Correia.

The Ethics Commission has not met since March, when City Hall closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the lawsuit, which was filed in Kent County Superior Court, McKenna further accuses Correia of making false statements about him for years, including calling him lazy and racist.

Correia fired back in a counterclaim, alleging McKenna has been trying to “intentionally and systemically sabotage” the councilman since he started working for the city.

McKenna and Correia filed a joint motion to compel the city to release text messages and emails they’re seeking in the case, and have accused the city of improperly withholding relevant documents including two documents entitled “Confidential Report on Findings in the Department of Public Works,” and “Correia & DPW.”

Separately, McKenna added the city as a defendant in the case in February, claiming — while not admitting to any fault — that his actions were at the direction of the city and his supervisors, and therefore the city would be liable for any damages.

The legal case is currently in the discovery phase. The most recent hearing in April was cancelled because courts are functionally minimally due to the coronavirus.

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

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