How Many “Side Deals” Exist in State and Local Government?

The sobering realization that should dawn on those who read Mark Reynolds’s article about Warwick fire fighters’ special sick-time deal is that these sorts of arrangements must exist across state and local government:

Under an agreement never approved by Warwick’s City Council, the Fire Department changed the sick-time benefits given to firefighters, granting eligible firefighters an extra amount of unused sick time each month, City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero confirmed Friday.

The unapproved “side agreement” was struck in 2013, between then-Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong III and then-firefighters union president William Lloyd. …

A copy of the 2013 agreement, obtained by The Journal late Friday, bears [City Solicitor Peter] Ruggiero’s signature.

Think of what had to go into the discovery of this arrangement.  Resident Rob Cote had to become so incensed about taxes and town government that he made himself a target of Warwick’s insiders for years to collect all the necessary data and understand how everything is supposed to work.  (Believe me, it isn’t easy to sort through all the numbers and contract language.)  Then Ken Block had to come in with a deep analysis of the numbers and be willing to make himself a target, as well, including a surprise fire inspection of his business.  Then, finally, statewide journalists became interested, and something came of the investigation.

This is for one relatively small “side deal” on one form of employee compensation for one union in one city.  By my count, there are 473 union locals across 39 cities and towns, a larger number of school districts and individual schools, as well as some fire districts and other distinct government or quasi-government entities.

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At first glance, each of the many benefits of these unions looks like a relatively small expense, and to investigate them and raise red flags, residents would have to spend copious time and accept public attacks on their integrity.  By my experience, local journalists will tend to accept that characterization of trouble-making residents until the intrepid good-government activists find some issue that cannot be denied and somehow manage to make it controversial despite a “nothing to see here” PR push from the insiders.

Finally, when everything comes to light, the union members never have to give anything back.  If any of them have broken any laws, they’ll typically be permitted to retire gracefully (keeping whatever sick-time or vacation payments they’ve accumulated).  In the case of the administrators who accepted it, they’ll at worst be replaced and shuffle off to some other community or take one of the many jobs in or out of government that insiders keep open for their own.

By plain logic, we should expect that Warwick’s sick time deal is replicated in one form or another throughout Rhode Island government.  This is a big reason that government employees should not be unionized.  If they were all independent employees, they’d have incentive to keep an eye on the deals being offered to others.  When they are unionized, rather than being part of a system of checks and balances, they all become complicit.

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