PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Was a $138,000 severance agreement struck between the Elorza administration and its former director of human resources “hush money” or a fiscally responsible decision to help the city avoid an ugly discrimination lawsuit?
That was the question debated by the Providence City Council Thursday before it voted 9-6 to deny the lucrative deal for Sybil Bailey, a veteran city director who agreed to resign from her post last month in exchange for a year’s salary and health benefits.
The reason for Bailey’s abrupt departure remains a mystery, in part because the agreement she signed prohibits her from discussing her resignation. The Elorza administration has also declined to discuss the arrangement, citing the terms of the deal.
But behind-the-scenes speculation poured onto the council floor Thursday, as some council members openly discussed the potential liability the city will face if Bailey files a lawsuit. Others said they feared the city would be setting a precedent by agreeing to a such a generous severance package.
“Understand what this is: this is paying someone not to say what happened and go away,” Councilman Luis Aponte (Ward 10) told the council. He called the arrangement “hush money.”
The agreement, signed by the city’s chief operating officer, guaranteed Bailey $138,000 for a year’s salary and her accrued and non-discharged vacation and floating holiday time. The administration also agreed to pay for health benefits for her and her spouse for a year, and to not challenge her pension.
In exchange, Bailey agreed to not sue the city or disclose any terms of the agreement to anyone except for her legal counsel, spouse or financial advisor. The deal also included a non-disparagement clause.
The City Council Committee on Claims and Pending Suits voted last week to recommend that the full council deny the payout to Bailey, but some councilors urged their colleagues to think about the potential consequences during the floor debate Thursday.
“It’s incumbent upon this council to consider possible financial exposure to the city,” Councilwoman Helen Anthony (Ward 2) said.
Councilman Seth Yurdin (Ward 1) agreed with Anthony, noting that Bailey, who is African-American, is a member of a protected class. He warned that a lawsuit could result in the city having to pay her more money, as well as the legal fees associated with litigation. He asked his colleagues to not “pander” to constituents.
“This council is about to disregard the recommendation of the law department,” Yurdin said.
Other members of the council said they didn’t feel comfortable approving the agreement.
Councilman John Igliozzi (Ward 7) questioned why the city would be paying a severance agreement for a director who served at the pleasure of the mayor. If the city agrees that Bailey faced discrimination, he said he’d like to know if anyone was fired.
“If that is true, then are the people who discriminated against this individual still in city government?” Igliozzi asked.
Councilman Nicholas Narducci (Ward 4), who chairs the Claims Committee, said the administration provided few answers to his questions when the committee met in executive session in recent weeks.
“What kind of message are we sending to our taxpayers?” Narducci asked.
Severance agreements are not uncommon in city government, but Bailey’s agreement was far more valuable than any of the 24 other separation deals signed by the Elorza administration since 2015.
The vote on Bailey’s agreement marks the first time a severance package for a city employee came to the council since it approved an ordinance last July that requires a vote on all separation deals valued at more than $10,000. The city’s law department has acknowledged it made a mistake when it didn’t send a $43,000 severance agreement for former city fleet manager Michael Grant to the council in September.
It’s unclear if the administration plans to attempt to strike a new agreement with Bailey.