INVESTIGATION: Providence Councilman Collects Pension and Salary from City

Friday, February 11, 2011

 

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A GoLocalProv investigation has found that a Providence councilman is collecting two pensions and a salary from the city at the same time—in what some good government advocates are calling a blatant case of double dipping.

Councilman Wilbur W. Jennings, Jr., D-Ward 8, worked for 28 years in the Public Works Department and is collecting a $27,923 pension from the city and a second, city-funded $6,192 pension through Local 1033 of the International Laborers’ Union. That’s in addition to the $18,765 salary he earns as a councilman. On top of all that, Jennings holds down a $10-an-hour part-time job as a valet at Herb Chambers Honda in Seekonk.

‘Double dipping into the system’

“This is a glaring example of why Providence is facing the magnitude of the unfunded pension debt it now carries. The councilman is apparently double-dipping into the system,” said Harriet Lloyd, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition. “He’s hardly leading by example at a time when the city is teetering on bankruptcy. Providence is facing a real possible fiscal meltdown and needs a council that can make very tough decisions that will rein in public employee pensions, not show others how to double-dip.”

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A former president of Operation Clean Government also took Jennings to task for double dipping. “This is symbolic of many things that are happening across the state that need to be looked at and addressed,” said Marie Sorman, who said she was offering her personal opinion. “If you’re retired, you’re retired. That means you do not work… It’s got to be one or the other.”

In an interview, Jennings denied he was double dipping. “That’s not so in my case,” Jennings said. “I’m elected by the people. I’m serving and I waived whatever I needed to waive.”

City ordinance imposes limits

In a November 29 legal opinion issued after he was elected last year, the City Solicitor’s office said Jennings had to waive his right to receive additional pension benefits based on his years on the council and forfeit the special pension that is afforded to elected officials. Jennings has also declined the health care benefits that are offered to city councilmen. (See below for the full text of the legal opinion.)

The legal opinion also warns Jennings that a city ordinance allows him to continue to collect his pension as long as he doesn’t work more than 75 full days or 150 half days in the year—but it doesn’t specify how his time as a councilman can be calculated. If he exceeds that time, his pension payments will be suspended, according to the opinion. (Click here to read the city ordinance.)

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The council’s twice-a-month meetings generally last a couple of hours at most. Committee meetings may take up a few more hours each month. But Jennings, like many councilmen, spends a lot of time meeting with constituents and monitoring any problems in the neighborhoods in his ward.

‘This job ... is full-time’

“This job to me is full-time. It’s registered as part-time but it’s really full-time,” Jennings told GoLocalProv. “Now I want to prove how good I am by working in everyone’s best interest and also at the same time trying to do the right thing.”

Jennings said he “doesn’t believe there is any other councilman” who gets out in his or her ward as much as he does. He said he spends a lot of his time just walking local streets, looking out for bad sidewalks and big potholes. During the last two major snowstorms, Jennings rode with the city plow trucks and, afterwards, he helped constituents who were elderly or sick clear sidewalks and outdoor stairs.

Jennings said he keeps careful track of how many hours he spends in council and committee meetings. Assuming an eight-hour work day, he says he will come nowhere close to 75-day limit city ordinance imposes. “If I counted all the time I go out to meet my constituents … I’d probably be way the hell over, but that’s volunteer time. I’m officially on the clock when I attend a council meeting,” Jennings said.

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Jennings, a 66-year-old bodybuilder who was once named the Most Eligible Bachelor by Ebony magazine, worked hard to get his council seat. He ran a dozen times—over a 24-year period—before finally winning last November. In that race, he faced a three-way primary that included the incumbent. (Jennings officially retired from city service in 2002.)

Being a councilman was his dream

Jennings, who says he grew up in a poor family as one of 14 children, is proud of what he’s achieved. “Martin Luther King … he had a dream and I had a dream too,” Jennings said. “Mine came true because I never gave up.”

Another potential issue for Jennings: votes on any contracts with the International Laborers’ Union, Local 1033. In the past, former council members John Lombardi and Josephine DiRuzzo recused themselves from voting on Local 1033 issues because they were members.

Asked if he’d recuse himself from such votes, Jennings was not sure, saying he would first seek an opinion from the State Ethics Commission. Jennings also serves on the Public Works Committee, but he denies that creates any conflicts of interest. “I don’t see any conflict of interest,” Jennings said. “As a matter of fact, I see a plus because I have the full knowledge of the department.”

In an interview, Jennings repeatedly insisted he had done everything he could to make sure he was following proper procedures with his pensions and salary. He said he had complied with all the advice the city had given him in the legal opinion.

“I always try my best to give my 1,000 percent to do the right thing,” Jennings said. “If you do the right thing, you’ll come out on top every time.”

 

Full Text of the Legal Opinion
 

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