Updated: East Providence Council at odds over reason for Manager's Commission response
EAST PROVIDENCE — Simmering since the re-establishment of the Budget Commission this spring upon the attempted removal of the police chief, the conflict between East Providence City Councilors James Briden and Chrissy Rossi appears to have come to a full boil over the last week.
At its Sept. 24 joint meeting with the School Committee and subsequent budget workshop, City Manager Peter Graczykowski, answering a request from Mrs. Rossi, provided the Council with what he termed as a "response" to the parameters and possibilities of the Commission's return in the future, deeming it unlikely if the city met certain conditions of the Fiscal Stability Act legislation.
Mr. Briden questioned the need and validity of the opinion since City Solicitor Timothy Chapman had not been involved.
"At the meeting, we were provided with an opinion from City Manager Peter Graczykowski. I then asked why Mrs. Rossi had not, consistent with our City Charter, sought this legal opinion from our City Solicitor. I also stated that this topic was not relevant to our meeting with the School Committee," Mr. Briden said.
Mr. Chapman confirmed he was not approached by the City Manager for a legal opinion. "No, I was not," Mr. Chapman said.
Asked if he usually would be included in such a determination, Mr. Chapman added, "Yes. Normally, a request for a legal opinion would go through the city's legal department."
For his part, Mr. Graczykowski said he was only responding to an inquiry from a Council member, something he has done "hundreds" of times in the past, and that he made sure to state his opinion was not based on any legal expertise but only his interpretation of the legislation. In fact, Mr. Graczykowski said he and the Council are waiting for Mr. Chapman to draft his opinion on the matter.
"If you read the memo in its entirety it offers a brief history on the Budget Commission," Mr. Graczykowski said. "I did not provide a legal opinion. I simply took the information from the statute."
The response Mr. Graczykowski presented to the Council noted five key clauses as to the possibility of the Commission's return:
(1) The City projects a deficit in the municipal budget in the current fiscal year and again in the upcoming fiscal year;
(2) The City has not filed its audits with the Auditor General by the deadlines required by law for two (2) successive fiscal years (not including extensions authorized by the Auditor General);
(3) The City or town has been downgraded by one of the nationally recognized statistical rating organizations;
(4) The City is otherwise unable to obtain access to credit markets on reasonable terms in the sole judgment of the director of revenue;
(5) The City does not promptly respond to requests made by the Director of Revenue, or the Auditor General, or the Chairpersons of the House and/or Senate Finance Committees for financial information and operating data necessary to assess the fiscal condition of the City in the sole judgment of the Director of Revenue.
The clarification and the inclusion of it on the agenda did not sit well with Mr. Briden, the Council president who previously requested State Director of Revenue Rosemary Booth Gallogly reinstate the Budget Commission in April after Mr. Graczykowski attempted to suspend East Providence Police Chief Joseph Tavares with pay and investigate pending grievances against him.
The manager's initial move, of course, backfired when Director Gallogly did, in fact, return the Commission to authority for matters of personnel. A subsequent investigation by the state overseers and the Rhode Island State Police found no evidence to back the claims against the chief and he was eventually returned to the job.
"What this opinion really signifies is that the Budget Commission cannot resume power over personnel matters as it had done in April after the Police Chief was put on administrative leave by our City Manager," Mr. Briden said. "As we recall, following a thorough review, the Budget Commission determined that there was an insufficient basis for the City Manager to have placed our Police Chief on administrative leave. The Budget Commission then reinstated Chief Tavares."
Mrs. Rossi, obviously holding a different position on the chief, at the time of Mr. Briden's request filed a formal complaint with the EPPD in the regard to the Council president's role in the matter. The complaint sought to determine if Mr. Briden had broken City Charter by his act of requesting the Commission return on his own.
Nothing of substance materialized from the complaint, but it did crystallize the division between the two Council members.
In an email response, Mrs. Rossi claimed to only be seeking clarification from the manager in regard to an interview conducted by The Post with Director Gallogly about the chances the Commission could be reseated in the future. She contended the article was "inaccurate" and the Director's statement on the matter was "extremely vague and suggestive."
"We do not fit any of the criteria listed (by Mr. Graczykowski) and therefore, the budget commission cannot be brought back on a whim," Mrs. Rossi wrote. "These are the reasons I asked Peter for clarification. I was not looking for a legal opinion. If I was, I’d ask Mr. Chapman. I rely on our very competent City Manager for detailed explanations on a daily basis. He is the City Manager."
In Mr. Briden's mind, at least, the timing of her request left open the intent of Mrs. Rossi having sought the opinion only a few days after the Budget Commission had been dissolved by Director Gallogly for a second time upon the hiring of Paul Luba for the position of Municipal Finance Advisor required in the amended Fiscal Stability Act legislation.
"Mrs. Rossi's request to our City Manager was on September 19, only three days after the effective date of Budget Commission's dissolution," Mr. Briden said. "In light of what has happened this year, the nature of Chrissy Rossi's request and its timing do not pass the smell test."
He added, "We cannot allow our city to be subjected to the expense and stigma associated with a wrongful termination lawsuit. Mrs. Rossi's conduct could become very costly to East Providence taxpayers."
Mr. Graczykowski flat out denied the chief's current status was material to his response.
"It has nothing to do with it," Mr. Graczykowski said. "And I don't really know how anybody can make that connection."