A group of 16 Rhode Island cities and towns have partnered for a legal challenge to the so-called “lifetime contracts law” adopted on the state level earlier this year – although Johnston, despite Mayor Joseph Polisena’s opposition to the law, is not a part of the effort.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung served as lead speaker and emcee Tuesday morning at North Providence Town Hall as a group announced the lawsuit, which is being filed in Superior Court.
The law firm of Greenberg Traurig will represent the municipalities, with Angel Taveras, former mayor of Providence, serving as lead counsel.
The League of Cities and Towns, while not formally a party to the suit, was represented at the gathering by its executive director, Brian Daniels, who stood by the mayors and administrators as several spoke about the challenges they say the law poses for their communities.
The legislation, signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo, allows for the extension of wages and benefits in municipal and teacher contracts as a new deal is negotiated.
“We’re here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of all of our taxpayers, that enough is enough,” Fung told assembled media members. “We have 16 cities and towns representing more than half of the state’s population here to challenge this law as unconstitutional on the basis that it violates the contracts law because it locks us in to the terms, especially the wages and benefits of these collective bargaining agreements that we negotiated.”
In April, the League and a few local leaders – including Polisena, Fung, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi and Barrington Town Manager James Cunha – hosted a press conference announcing their opposition to the bill just as it was set to be heard by the House of Representatives.
Polisena was the only member of that group not present during Tuesday’s press conference, and Johnston is the sole community among those previously represented not to be included as a party on the suit. Polisena has railed against the law since its inception, calling it an “evergreen” contract bill and saying that, if he had to raise taxes because of it, he would put General Assembly members’ names on the notice.
While his disdain for the law hasn’t changed, he said Tuesday that he opted not to take part in the suit in an effort to save taxpayers money.
“If they win, we all win,” Polisena said, referencing a December 2018 settlement with National Grid regarding payment for electricity for streetlights on state roads to make his point.
He added: “When we fought for the issue of the streetlights, we did it on our own and we did what we had to do, which is fine. We did an out-of-court settlement where we paid what we owed them but we never have to pay for state streetlights again. That took us seven years. We were very successful and by us being successful the other cities and towns reaped the benefits of me and my community taking on National Grid.”
Polisena also took the opportunity to voice his displeasure with some of the participating communities who approved resolutions opposing the sale of water to Chicago-based Invenergy for the Burrillville Power Plant. The plant has since been rejected by the state Energy Facilities Siting Board.
He insisted, however, that there was no ill will in his refusal to take part in the lawsuit, and that it was “nothing personal.”
“It’s not payback,” he said. “Let them lead the fight, I’ve always led the fight. I’ve always led the fight when it comes to my taxpayers. It’s not payback, it’s not spite. I’m disappointed we had all those resolutions against us for selling water. Let them expend their dollars and we’ll just sit back, just like they were the beneficiary of no more paying for streetlights.”
According to a press release distributed at the event, the plaintiffs are alleging that the law violates two provisions of the Rhode Island Constitution – the Contract Clause and the Home Rule Provision.
The release argues that the bill is in contrast with the state’s Contract Clause, which says the state cannot enact laws “impairing the obligation of contracts.” As for the Home Rule Provision – a section that allows for self-government at the local level – the municipalities allege that enforcement of the bill could result in “potentially rendering local ordinances ineffective.”
“Without any specific knowledge of a municipality’s finances and without being at the negotiation table, the governor and the General Assembly have inserted themselves into local contract negotiations,” the release reads. “One size-fits-all contract provisions take local decision-making away from municipal leaders.”
The League of Cities and Towns said in a statement issued Wednesday: “The new law automatically extends the contract terms indefinitely – taking leverage away from municipal leaders, especially when concessions are needed. The parties may disagree on the impact of the law, but the suit is about the State and General Assembly’s interference in existing contracts and in local matters, two clear breaches of Rhode Island’s Constitution.”
Raimondo’s press secretary Josh Block told the Herald in a statement that her office has not yet had a chance to fully review the lawsuit, but he stood by the bill.
“The legislation passed by the General Assembly last session was narrowly tailored to return to what was the status quo for decades in Rhode Island, and we’re confident it will stand,” Block said.
Others questioned the decision to pursue legal action. Bob Walsh, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association said he was “befuddled why they are spending the taxpayers’ money,” as cities and towns don’t have the grounds to sue the General Assembly or the state.
“The cities and towns exist by virtue of the state and can’t sue the master, so to speak,” he said Wednesday. Even should the suit be successful he can’t imagine how municipalities would be better off.
Fung led the charge among the state leaders present on Tuesday – introducing Lombardi, Elorza and others – during the 30-minute press conference. He said all of the communities represented could face service cuts and property tax increases if the law stands.
“All of us are standing here today being named as part of this lawsuit,” Fung said. “I’m just sick and tired of the unfunded mandates that keep coming down from Smith Hill. While we’ve been treading water for a long time, this might be that one law that wipes us out. Quite simply, we are not going to let this happen to our residents who depend on us.”
Elorza joined the chorus of voices opposed to the law, saying that no matter their respective political affiliations or the size of their communities, they all face “the same exact challenges.” He said the contract continuation bill would only make their work harder.
“It’s going to make it more difficult for us to reach an agreement, when we’re at the negotiating table,” he said. “That’s only going to make the negotiations more acrimonious. It’s going to make it more difficult to come to an agreement … Our jobs are hard enough as it is. We can’t continue to do this with continued cuffs placed upon us and our hands tied behind our backs. We need more flexibility to move our cities forward.”