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DPW employee who sued councilman placed on leave

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Providence DPW Deputy Director Michael McKenna (WPRI file photo)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The deputy director of the Providence Department of Public Works, who filed an ethics complaint and lawsuit against a city councilman for allegedly trying to have him demoted, has been placed on leave by the city.

Michael McKenna was put on paid administrative leave by the human resources department, according to city spokesperson Emily Crowell. She did not provide a reason for the personnel action.

McKenna was vaulted into the spotlight last June after text messages surfaced, first reported by Target 12, about a conversation between City Councilman Michael Correia and highway superintendent Sal Solomon that discussed demoting McKenna.

In the texts, which are now part of the ongoing ethics investigation and lawsuit, 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 talks 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 has hired outside attorney Gerald Coyne to conduct the investigation. The City Council has hired outside attorney Artin Coloian to represent Correia.

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.

Reached by phone, McKenna declined to comment on why he was placed on leave, citing the ongoing legal proceedings.

“I look forward to continuing to work for the city of Providence,” McKenna added.

Asked about McKenna being placed on leave, Correia referred comment to Coloian, his attorney.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it, and I will say the timing is curious,” Coloian said.

Multiple city staffers were originally subpoenaed for depositions in the ongoing lawsuit, including municipal integrity officer Rosa Arias-Perry and Elorza’s chief operating officer Sabrina Solares-Hand. But city spokesperson Patricia Socarras says the subpoenas were canceled and the two city staffers have not been contacted again.

McKenna and Correia have also jointly filed a 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 that are the subject of a subpoena.

On the city’s list of “privileged” documents that they declined to release is an August 2019 memo entitled “Confidential Report on Findings in the Department of Public Works,” and a 2018 communication entitled “Correia & DPW.”

Lawyers for the city also contend in court documents that the city does not have access to certain records, including text messages and personal emails that McKenna and Correia are demanding.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for later this month.

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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