16 RI municipalities sue over continuing contracts law

Politics

NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Arguing the new law “binds our taxpayers to contracts that would never end,” the leaders of 16 Rhode Island cities and towns announced a lawsuit Tuesday to abolish the statute that extends public-sector labor union contracts after they expire.

The law, known sometimes as the “evergreen” contracts law, and referred to by the municipalities as the “lifetime” contracts law, allows union contracts to continue until a new deal is reached, even after they expire.

The towns and cities, represented by former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, are suing Gov. Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. The legislation passed both the House and Senate earlier this year, and was signed by Raimondo.

Raimondo told reporters Tuesday she had not yet seen the lawsuit, but was not surprised it had been filed. She had vetoed an earlier version of the law in 2017.

“The mayors were opposed to the bill when the legislature passed it,” Raimondo said. “Obviously we don’t agree with that position. It’s a pretty narrow bill, and we’re prepared to defend it.”

The municipalities that have signed on as plaintiffs to the lawsuit are Barrington, Bristol, Burrillville, Central Falls, Charlestown, Cranston, East Greenwich, Lincoln, Little Compton, North Kingstown, North Providence, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, Providence, Smithfield and Woonsocket.

Passage of the bill was considered a major victory for public-sector unions. The union leaders argue it is already a practice in many cities and towns to keep the previous contract going during ongoing negotiations. Plus, they say mayoral fears of “forever” contracts are unfounded because that would mean no raises for municipal employees.

The suit alleges the law violates both the contract clause and the home rule provisions of the Rhode Island Constitution.

The General Assembly “literally handcuffed us with lifetime contracts,” Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, said at a news conference. “And as we all know, it makes it astronomically harder to get concessions during difficult financial times. And it provides collective bargaining units with a significant advantage.”

Two leaders at the news conference — Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and East Greenwich Town Manager Andy Nota — said they had already been affected by the new law.

Nota said the East Greenwich teachers union contract expired over the summer, and the contract is continuing under the new law while negotiations for a new contract are underway.

“That’s having significant leverage,” he said.

Baldelli-Hunt said Woonsocket has several expired contracts currently under negotiation, including deals with the police and fire unions.

Several other cities and towns have union contract expirations coming up next year.

Notably absent from the lawsuit are several Rhode Island cities including Warwick, East Providence and Newport.

“While I appreciate the position of the cities and towns that have chosen to take part in the lawsuit, I do not believe that the present environment of litigation at the state level is productive,” Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon said in a statement. “I believe we can get more accomplished by having open discussions about potential amendments to the law to address these concerns on behalf of our taxpayers.”

East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva declined to comment.

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who also declined to sign on to the suit, said he’s against the contracts law but didn’t want to spend taxpayer dollars on a lawsuit.

“I think it’s one of the worst pieces of legislation that was ever filed,” Polisena told WPRI 12. “It puts a nail in the financial coffin in the cities and towns.”

He said he felt that since Johnston taxpayers paid for a recent lawsuit about towns and cities being responsible for streetlights on state roads, he decided to sit this lawsuit out.

“Let them spend their money and we’ll see what happens,” Polisena said. “I wish them luck, I hope they win.”

Taveras said his firm is being paid $450 per hour, which is being divided between the 16 municipalities.

In a joint statement, Mattiello and Ruggerio defended the law. “We’re disappointed that some local leaders have chosen to take the unusual step of suing the General Assembly and the governor,” they said.

“We are confident the law enacted to protect our municipal employees and teachers will withstand this legal challenge,” they continued. “This law requires all municipal leaders to come to the negotiating table in good faith. It protects wages and benefits when a contract has expired so that these employees can continue to serve their communities and our children. This law, which had been standard practice for many years, is fair to both sides and creates a level playing field for all parties.”

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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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