Polisena teases legal action if ‘evergreen’ bill becomes law

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Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena discussed the possibility of legal action down the road if the so-called “evergreen” contracts bill is signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

The House and Senate bills, which are now at Raimondo's desk, would extend the wages and benefits of municipal and teacher contracts while negotiations are ongoing. Polisena has railed against the bill since its inception, calling it a “lifetime” contract bill and saying it would result in a tax increase in Johnston.

Polisena told the Sun Rise on Tuesday morning that he has suggested to the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns – which held a press conference weeks ago to oppose the bill before its House vote – that there should be an effort made to challenge the law in court.

“If it becomes law, we should challenge it on the grounds that they’re taking our constitutional right away to negotiate,” said Polisena, who took part in the press conference. “I’m not a lawyer, but I’m sure there’s got to be something. We need to look at challenging it because it’s going to have a devastating effect.”

Polisena also teased the possibility of taking legal action himself, referencing the town’s settlement late last year with National Grid over streetlight electricity payments for state roads in town.

“We paid them what we owe them, but I don’t have to pay for state streetlights anymore,” Polisena said, pointing out a window in his office. “I was looking outside one day and said, ‘Who’s the idiot that’s paying for two streetlights back to back?’ I was the idiot. So we did an audit of all the state streetlights and we stopped paying.”

Polisena said, and Raimondo spokesman Josh Block confirmed, that the mayor was one of the municipal leaders invited to meet with the governor on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the bill. The meeting concluded after the Sun Rise went to press.

The mayor said the League of Cities and Towns invited him to join the conversation. He said he will have a simple message for Raimondo – asking her to veto the legislation. He noted that the governor vetoed a similar version of the bill a couple years ago.

Block told the Sun Rise through an email Tuesday afternoon that the new bill “takes into account the recommendations outlined in her veto letter” and that Raimondo is leaning toward signing the measure.

Polisena used a familiar example to illustrate his stance. He said that if he wants to switch a union over from one healthcare plan to another that’s a bit cheaper with the same coverage, he believes unions will opt to stay on the previous contract.

“This will definitely, positively, absolutely handcuff the cities and towns and cost tax increase,” Polisena said. “By them saying, we want ‘healthcare A’ … it’s cost me $300,000 more to pay for ‘healthcare A,’ when they could’ve been on ‘healthcare B.’ I could’ve saved money. Then I’ve got to pay for things like mediation for the lawyer, for our lawyer. Then it’s arbitration for the lawyer. Then, if I don’t like what the arbitrator does, I’ll take it to Superior Court.”

The bill passed the Senate last week, but neither member of the Johnston delegation gave their approval.

Both Sens. Stephen R. Archambault (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston) and Frank Lombardo III (D-Dist. 25, Johnston) voted against the bill, moves that have earned them the moniker of “hometown heroes” from Polisena. The mayor said he personally thanked Archambault and Lombardo.

The two Johnston senators represented a quarter of the votes against the bill, which passed 28-8. Archambault did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Lombardo told the Sun Rise Tuesday afternoon that he didn’t vote in favor because “the mayor of the town of Johnston was not in support of it, the School Committee of Johnston was not in support of it and the Town Council of Johnston was not in support of it.”

Polisena took umbrage with a statement Johnston Rep. Stephen Ucci (D-Dist. 42) made to the Sun Rise in a story last week. Ucci told the Sun Rise that “it’s the mayor who raises your taxes, not the General Assembly.”

“That’s false. If they put laws in, like labor laws, that is going to infringe on my right to negotiate,” Polisena said. “The constituents aren’t stupid, by the way … I want to obviously rebut that statement because, yeah, I raise taxes, but now I’m going to have to raise the taxes because of his vote.”

Polisena continue to refute Ucci’s stance, saying the General Assembly’s “basically handcuffed us.”

“The mayor will raise the taxes because I have no choice about what the General Assembly did,” the mayor said. “I think the statement was a little false, because obviously if I overspend then, yes, but this is about basically handcuffing us, putting our hands behind our back and putting a blindfold over us and saying, ‘Negotiate.’”

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