Former federal official calls RI pension case "the mother of all mediations"

Jan 7, 2013

A former head of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service -- the government arm mediating Rhode Island's pension dispute among eight parties -- calls the case "the mother of all mediations."

Peter J. Hurtgen, who led the FMCS from 2002 through 2004, says a subset of the eight parties in mediation could potentially reach some areas of agreement among themselves. But he says the complexity of the case makes it unusually fraught for mediation:

"If there are eight parties, that is the mother of all mediations. If in fact their issues are so inter-connected that unless all eight agree on a whole host of issues, there are no agreements."

Mediation among the eight parties is expected to begin Wednesday, according to a source who requested anonymity. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service declined to answer generic questions about the mediation process, and participants in the case declined to comment.

Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter ordered the mediation last month. The move came after five public-sector unions sued Governor Lincoln Chafee, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, and Raimondo (in her capacity as chair of the State Investment Commission), in an effort to overturn the state's 2011 landmark overhaul of the state pension system. The unions argue the pension overhaul violates the state Constitution and went too far in cutting pension benefits for public employees.

Chafee previously said that approving a pension settlement is mostly up to him and the General Assembly. Hurtgen says the parties involved in the mediation form the foundation for agreements.

Court spokesman Craig Berke says the mediation ordered by Taft-Carter will take place independently of the court and without the court's knowledge.

A status conference on the mediation is slated for February 1. Depending on what information is presented at the status conference, Berke says, the mediation could continue, or the case  could head toward trial.