Power Behind Cianci's Throne 'one of the boys'


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

Thursday October 8, 1992


One day in June while Frank Corrente was frustrating City Council Finance Committee efforts to scale back benefits for city employees, one committee member took a scrap of paper and sketched his view of the pecking order around town.

At the top of Councilman Joshua N. Fenton's artwork was the word "God." Below God was "Mayor Cianci" and below him was "Corrente" followed by "city taxpayers" and, at the bottom, "council."

While some may dispute the flow chart's top level, few in City Hall would contest the order of the next two.

As the city's director of administration and the treasurer of the Cianci for Mayor Committee, Frank Corrente is second to just one.

And when it comes to dealing with municipal unions, he is largely by himself as the city's chief negotiator - the tightrope walker in the balancing act of keeping expenses down and employees happy.

"You have to have a level of trust and a level of like for each other," Corrente says, leaning back in a chair around the cluttered conference table in his office. "I think you get that by becoming one of the boys - go out and have a drink, always have time to discuss anything with them."

With union negotiations nearly complete, Corrente is pointing with pride to two consecutive years of pay freezes for most unions. But some council members feel he has not done enough in cutting benefits and has put the city in financial jeopardy by agreeing to raises in 1993-94 and 1994-95.

Corrente, an accountant who came out of "semi-retirement" to help run Cianci's campaign in 1990, has a relaxed, friendly manner that charms even those who dislike his labor strategy. As the person to whom the head of every department reports, he wields immense power in the city's day-to-day running. His desk is a heap of letters, memos and phone messages, some from citizens seeking jobs, others from council members needing help.

"If there's something you need done in your neighborhood and you're running into a lot of red tape and legalities, Frank can sometimes work his way around that," says Councilwoman Patricia K. Nolan, D-Ward 9.

"I greatly admire Frank . . . I think Frank is a master as far as negotiating with unions. He has excellent rapport with them and I admire that. I wish that he would listen a little bit more closely to what the council was saying."

Others are more bluntly critical. "I quite frankly have not seen eye to eye with Frank in the last year or so," says Councilman John J. Lombardi, D-Ward 13. "He seems to have his mind set on doing things his own way. I disagree with a lot of the things he does. I thought the council sent him and the administration a message: one-year contracts with no raises."

"As a person," Lombardi adds, "he's a gentleman."

Corrente seems friendly with virtually everyone in City Hall. Some friendships extend beyond work, as is the case with the Laborers' International Union, whose members hold non-uniformed city jobs.

On Monday, his son, Darren, will marry the daughter of Arthur A. Coia, the union's secretary-treasurer. Frank Corrente is old friends with the Coia family, and Darren Corrente met Christen Coia several years ago while he was a summer intern at Coia's former law firm.

While Corrente was running for general treasurer in 1988, the union gave his campaign $1,000.

Corrente finds no conflict because he negotiates with leaders of the local union and, he says, has little contact with Arthur A. Coia.

"If there is any friendship, which there is, I believe it will work for the city," Corrente says. "It's a lot easier to negotiate and get your point across without creating an adversarial relationship."

Laborers Local 1033 has given Corrente the easiest time. Last year when most unions took a pay freeze, the laborers were the first to sign their contract by several months, pressuring others to follow suit, and they did so without the rancor that put teachers on strike or any side benefits like the increased staffing levels in the Police Department.

On Tuesday, the 1,000-member union agreed to a contract that freezes wages this year and provides raises in the following two years of 4.5 percent and 5 percent - the same provisions ratified by teachers and pending before firefighters. Police are in arbitration.

"Just compare what I negotiated for the city" with other communities, Corrente says. "You're going to say we did a yeoman's job."

Some say otherwise.

"We think there are potential ways of saving money in all the contracts aside from not giving anybody a raise," says Finance Committee Chairman David G. Dillon. "What's killing the city is Blue Cross for life and health care."

The council wanted to institute what it saw as long-term savings by curbing health benefits for retirees and requiring co-payment for health insurance. But Corrente repeatedly told the council not to include such savings in a budget because they might not materialize in negotiations, which they have not.

"Frank's approach is any time we bring up an idea, (he says) you can't do that, you can't do that, you can't do that," Dillon says. "What happens, and what happened last year, is you get council people tired of 'We can't, we can't, we can't,' and they said, 'We're going to do something different here.' It provokes the council."

Fenton, one of the administration's harshest critics, says, "He will come before the Finance Committee and argue as best as I can tell the union position . . . In many cases, he is their best advocate."

Corrente was the man a group of union leaders complained to in May about a directive from Charles R. Mansolillo, the city solicitor, that threatened some retirement benefits.

Mansolillo had ordered the suspension of improvements in retirement benefits agreed to by the city and its unions in December. He wanted time to review the legality of the agreement, effected through a consent decree to settle a court case, though the unions were, in Corrente's words, "quite disturbed that the city would hold up something that the court would order."

Corrente called Mansolillo on a Friday and told him to make a decision quickly. "I didn't tell him my opinion," Corrente said at the time. "I just told him you better look at it very closely." Mansolillo reversed his decision the next Monday.

Corrente says his actions simply follow what is legally required, as in the case of the pension benefits, or what is impossible, as in the case of cuts sought by the council. The laborers' contract, he notes, contains money saving changes, such as managed health benefits and the option of not filling vacant jobs.

"When I say we can't do it, I already know what I can get," Corrente says. "I always try. We tried very diligently to get copay." Firefighters recalled

Last week, Corrente recommended the recall of 60 firefighters who were laid off in August, at the council's urging, after he compiled figures showing the layoff will cost the city $1 million this year, mostly because of overtime.

"He's shown a real sensitivity to the 60 firefighters and their families," says Stephen T. Day, the union's president. "He's actually concerned with their well-being."

Cianci rejected his top aide's advice and has sent the matter to arbitration, which disappointed Day, although he retains positive views of Corrente.

"He can make it very easy or very hard," Day says from a bench outside Corrente's office where union leaders frequently gather. "He says, 'If you want to make it easy, here's what I need.' If you're not willing to be reasonable with him, you've got a closed door in your face.

"Not only have (negotiations) been friendly, but due to that mannerism, he's actually achieved more concessions. He gained major inroads in management rights."

This year's contract, which the union must ratify, would create a "lightduty" provision that will put injured firefighters to work instead of having them collect full pay while out of work on disability. Last year, when the firefighters received a 4 percent raise under a contract signed in 1990, the administration got the union to give up a week of vacation, which was aimed at offsetting the cost of the raise.

Street smart

Corrente has supported Cianci since he became mayor in 1975, while Corrente, then a Democrat, was chief of fiscal affairs for the Department of Planning and Urban Development. Corrente, now an independent like his boss, was city controller when Cianci resigned in 1984 and he worked under Joseph R. Paolino until resigning in January 1987.

"He's from the streets," Cianci says. Corrente's parents came from Italy in 1926 and eventually settled in the North End, where they still live. His father, born in Argentina, was a toolmaker and his mother, a native Italian, was a textile worker.

"He's a street-smart guy and that gives him leverage with the unions," Cianci says. "He comes from where they come from. They're not going to play any tricks."

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