WOONSOCKET – When former Mayor Susan D. Menard announced her intention to run for her old job again recently, she pledged to waive the $80,000 a year salary that comes with the position and live on her state pension.
Given the city's dire financial straits, it sounds like the civic-minded thing to do, particularly since the ex-mayor's state pension is some 33 percent less than the salary that comes with the job.
There's just one problem with Menard's plan: it's illegal — at least according to the Employees Retirement System of Rhode Island. ERSRI says such an accomodation would run afoul of a section of the state's general laws governing post-retirement employment.
“Any retired mayor who goes back to work as mayor must suspend his or her pension benefit,” said Dara Chadwick, a spokeswoman for ERSRI.
After double-checking with ERSRI's legal counsel, Chadwick said if Menard were elected it doesn't matter whether she worked for $1 a year, waived her entire salary or declared herself an unpaid volunteer. As soon as ERSRI found out she had become mayor again, the agency would send her a letter informing her that her pension benefit was to be suspended.
A fixture of civic life in Woonsocket for nearly three decades, Menard served on the School Committee and City Council for many years before she was elected the first woman mayor in the city's history in 1995. She went on to serve a record seven consecutive terms before stepping down in 2009, paving the way for Mayor Leo T. Fontaine to succeed her in office.
For nearly two years, Menard had been virtually absent from public life. But she is once again creating a stir in political circles after taking out preliminary papers on Aug. 30 to challenge the first-term incumbent.
Shortly after filing the papers, The Call asked Menard whether she had done any research into the legalities of waiving her salary in lieu of her pension.
“What research would need to be done?” she answered. “If I don't want to draw a salary I don't have to draw a salary.”
But Menard has apparently since been in touch with lawyers who are already throwing cold water on ERSRI's interpretation of state law in regards to Menard's eligibility for post-employment pension benefits if she were to defeat Fontaine in a general election.
The Call tried to reach Menard Tuesday via cell phone in Jamaica, where she was traveling, but had trouble maintaining a connection. A local political ally of the mayor's steered The Call to a legal spokesman for Menard, who says she now intends to ask ERSRI for a written opinion regarding her eligibility for post-retirement employment benefits.
The lawyer, who insisted on anonymity until Menard returns, said a preliminary review suggests that state law regarding post-retirement employment is vague and contradictory.
He said if Menard is adamant about waiving a salary and living on her pension, she could appeal to ERSRI's board of directors. If that avenue does not yield a satisfactory result, she could ask the Superior Court to intervene.
At first blush, the lawyer said, it's unclear why ERSRI should balk at Menard's offer to waive a salary in lieu of a pension benefit. After all, he said, Menard has already earned the benefit, and the only party potentially shortchanged by her decision to waive a higher salary – borne entirely by local taxpayers – would be her.
“Where's there's no harm there should be no foul,” he said.
ERSRI didn't know quite what to make of such an argument. Chadwick said the set of circumstances that would arise as a result of an electoral victory by Menard is so unusual, it's possible there could be an outcome ERSRI has not yet envisioned.
“It's a good question,” said Chadwick. “This is sort of a unique scenario.”
Menard began collecting gross pension benefits of $4,451.19 per month (about $53,400 a year) in June 2010, said Chadwick. The retirement board could not immediately think of another mayor in the same shoes as Menard – someone who'd already begun collecting a benefit and who could now, potentially, return to full-time work in the same capacity.
At issue is Section 36-10-36 of the Rhode Island General Laws, dealing with post-retirement employment. Subsection “d” specifically envisioned the possibility of retired members serving in elective capacities as mayor, town administrator, town manager, city councilor, or similar positions.
In those instances, the law says the retiree in question “shall continue to be eligible for and receive the retirement allowance for service other than that as mayor, administrator, council member, school committee member, or member of any state board or commission or member of any part-time municipal board or commission; provided, however, that no additional service credits shall be granted for any service under this subsection...”
In plain language, the law would appear to preclude Menard from collecting any pension benefits accrued as a result of her combined public service not just as mayor, but previous stints on the School Committee and City Council, which date back to the 1980s.
Yet the same law says retirees can work up to 75 days a year without any forfeiture or reduction in benefits – a phrase Menard's lawyers see as a legal flaw that could undermine ERSRI's current position with regard to the ex-mayor.
But it is still premature to say whether this sticky wicket of retirement reimbursement will come into play for Menard. Ultimately, of course, she would have to defeat Fontaine, but there is a more basic test Menard would have to pass for it to become relevant: She'd have to become a bona fide candidate.
So far, Menard has filed only preliminary declaration papers. To secure a spot on the Nov. 8 ballot, she must return to the city's Board of Canvassers nomination papers signed by no fewer than 100 properly registered voters.
Yesterday marked the opening of nomination period, when candidates can pick up their forms at City Hall. The nomination period lasts until Sept. 20, the deadline for returning them with the required number of signatures.