The city’s personnel director for the past eight-and-a-half years, Susan Bello, has sued the city, asking a Superior Court judge to block the City Council from eliminating her job as part of a budget consolidation plan they adopted for next year.
The suit states the consolidation plan is “ill conceived” and the “City Council has usurped the Mayor’s authority and abused its own under the Cranston City Charter.”
During the budget process in May, the City Council voted to “non-fund” Bello’s position with the intention of transferring her work over to the school department. The measure was suggested to save about $100,000 and the school district would be paid a fee for the services.
But Bello alleges that by zeroing-out the line item that funds her position, the council terminated her in violation of the law, city charter and without due process. “If the council is allowed to remove employees in this manner, it will strip the executive branch of its administrative authority and threaten other city employees with the risk of unlawful termination, loss of benefits, salary and reputation,” the suit alleges.
The job of personnel director is a mayoral appointment and has a salary of $61,562. Bello states that the position is classified and mandated in the City Charter, which should grant her the right for a termination hearing.
“The City Council of Cranston has no legal authority to abolish positions or departments as that power resides in the executive branch,” the lawsuit states. “Further, the mayor has not requested that the position of the Director of Personnel be eliminated.”
The mayor did not veto any of the City Council's amendements to the $246.7 million budget, however, which includes the consolidation plan that de-funded Bello's position.
In the suit, Bello said she was contacted on April 23 before the city council vote by Gerry Cordy, director of administration. He told her that the council was discussing the removal of her position and moving her duties to the school district.
About a week later, Cordy contacted her again and asked her to provide a job description because “the council wanted to know what [she] did.” She also heard from Councilman Paul Archetto around the same time, who said the council members in favor of the plan “were attempting to eliminate [her] position.”
Finally, on May 9, Cordy reiterated during the day that the council “still intended to eliminate [her] position,” leading up to the council vote that night. But Bello never received formal notice, the suit alleges, a requirement of the City Charter and civil service rules and regulations.
Specifically, according to the suit, the actions of the council are in violation of the section of the charter that states: “No member of the council shall direct or request the appointment of any person to or any person’s removal from any office or employment by the mayor or any of the mayor’s subordinates or in any way take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees of the city expect as specifically provided in the charter,” instructing the council to “deal with the administrative services of the city solely through the mayor.”
On the night of the vote, councilman James Donahue said the consolidation is an "experiment for the city and the school district" and an "opportunity to reduce the amount of money the city is spending to manage a function and provide some additional relief to schools."
If things go smoothly, "it could lay the groundwork for other operations in certian areas" like information technology, Donahue said. "If it doesn't work, we have a case study to look at and study and try to examine why it didn't work."
In a premonition, Councilman Archetto said the measure essentially "eliminates the personnel department" and that opens the door to getting sued by the personnel director.
"The council can’t just yoink the personnel director," Archetto said. "The city could be placed in injunction and the city is going to spend $50,000 or $100,000 in legal fees."
Council President Anthony Lupino said the council wouldn't be eliminating anything.
"It's de-funding a department," Lupino said. "It's no different than the mayor not filling positions in the highway department or a director through attrition."
Donahue said there will always be reasons why people think not to consolidate services, but in this instance, he said it seems to protect the integrity of the City Charter and "is limiting tools the mayor has."
The suit contends that Bello will suffer “irreparable harm,” lose her job, suffer financially and emotionally and “will have suffered damage to her reputation in the community.”
“Having been terminated from her employment with the city, without any chance to defend herself or her good name in any forum, it becomes that much more difficult to seek new employment in the job market,” the suit states. “She is therefore paying a penalty that is unfair to her when there exists no cause or legal basis for her to be removed from this position.”
The suit also contends that if the judge, Sarah Taft-Carter, issues temporary relief, it “will maintain the status quo” and “there is no hardship to the city if the plaintiff remains in her position while this matter is pending.”
In fact, the suit states, “the School Department has no idea about executing the varied and complex responsibilities of the Director of Personnel and has absolutely no experience in this regard.”