By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority's board of directors took just a few seconds Monday to announce the elimination of 33 jobs to help slash its deficit. That appeared to be to the easy part in the Dec. 19 meeting. The more complicated process was the fallout from the hiring — and subsequent firing — of two drivers with criminal records.
About a dozen protesters from DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) rallied outside RIPTA's main entrance to protest the firing of Kevin Thomas and Larry Robertson. Both were hired through a criminal reintegration program as drivers for the RIde program, a service that transports disabled riders. Thomas and Robertson were let go last month after a TV report showed that both men had extensive criminal records.
Roberston was one of a half-dozen protesters to speak critically of the decision to end his job, especially without complaints over his performance.
"I thought I was on the right track and it was snatched away from me," he said. "It was just wrong."
RIPTA CEO Charles Odimgbe said he suspended RIPTA's involvement in the Open Doors reintegration program until a review can be done in February. But he defended his belief in finding jobs for former convicts. "Being a minority, I take pride in individuals doing these things." he said. "My responsibility is to help these individuals find the right path."
At last month's board meeting, several RIPTA bus drivers were upset with Odimgbe over a lack of due diligence into the drivers' background. At least two drivers called for his resignation. Odigmbe said his participation in the Open Doors program was made known to Paul Harrington, president of the local Amalgamated Transit Union. Harrington, however, said he and union members "were left in the dark" about the program.
Board director Tom Deller supported Odimgbe and said the board agreed with his recommendation to suspend the program until a review is completed.
"This is a good program," Deller said, adding that he favors reactivating a reintegration program. "It's something we need in this city and this state."
He was less verbal about the board's decision — during executive session — to commence with the layoff of 33 employees. The cuts are expected to save $948,613. The layoffs take effect Feb. 1. Officials indicated that most of the positions will likely be administrative, however, the exact cuts will be determined at the board's January meeting.
At the conclusion of the meeting Odimgbe gave the media a stack of memos relating to the budget cuts between himself and Harrington. His final letter was a Dec. 19 notice to the board of directors explaining that a union "PR campaign of misinformation" has led to "an environment of total distrust on the part of all parties."
The board therefore voted on and approved a measure to make the staff cuts while looking to re-open negotiations with the union at a later date.
Odimgbe also reported that overall ridership was up 7 percent this year, and passengers were spending more time on the bus. But much of this positive news was tempered by a report of an expected reduction in revenues and an increase in expenditures that looks to leave RIPTA with a $10 million budget deficit at the start of its next fiscal year.
"We're going back to the drawing board," Odimgbe said.