Take My Council, Please: We Didn’t Start the Fire…
UPDATED 9:52 PM: NEPR reports confirm Mayor Sarno has signed the casino ethics ordinance.
SPRINGFIELD—Amid some uncertainty about details in the new contract, approval of the city’s pact with its firefighters—the first in years—was nearly derailed as officials scrambled to secure the details. While ultimately passing, the contract and questions about the latest batch of law suit settlements were the focus of the City Council’s scrutiny Monday night.
However, these two matters were not the only star attractions. The Council by a unanimous vote granted final passage of the proposed casino ethics ordinance, which Mayor Domenic Sarno signed shortly thereafter. The Council also passed a resolve supporting the imperiled Western Mass Correctional Alcohol Center, run by the Hampden County Sheriff’s office.
Among the other small matters were the acceptances of Board of Public Works reports, including new streets. The Council accepted a donation for the upkeep of the Old First Church and several smaller grants. City Solicitor Ed Pikula explained that a $20,000 transfer within his department was to cover the recent departure of a city lawyer with outside counsel until the new fiscal year, when Pikula would know if he could permanently fill the post.
The Council also approved the purchase of a mower from the independent Water & Sewer Commission. The new mower’s cost $9999, DPW Director Chris Cignoli told the Council, will be recouped by performing mowing in-house rather than contracting it out.
The contract between the city and the International Association of Firefighter Local 648, technically two contracts that together run from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2016, hit a snag over questions regarding residency within the city for firefighters. The contract, HR/Labor Relations Director William Mahoney explained, was agreed to just before it would have gone to arbitration.
Mahoney said the parties agreed 2% raises in three of the covered four years and changes to vacation, sick leave, education credits and the definitions for the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act. One matter, shift swaps, both sides agreed to send to a Joint Management-Labor panel. Much of the contract mirrored last year’s police pact.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen asked about the cost. Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante said the fire department’s budget and a transfer of excess funds would cover the estimated $862,000 needed to implement the contract this year.
Confusion erupted when councilors learned residency was not in the contract even though many believed it was. Rather, the last agreement’s requirement that firefighters live no more than 10 miles away from the city’s borders stands, as per state law. This led to a back and forth between councilors, specifically Bud Williams, Orlando Ramos and Council President Michael Fenton, and Mahoney.
Williams accused Mahoney of not putting residency on the negotiating table. The at-large councilor pivoted between frustrated vitriol and praise for Mahoney’s inclusion of residency in other labor pacts.
Fenton said a provision to enforce the city’s residency ordinance already existed in previous firefighter contracts. Residency was not a negotiated issue in the new contract, thus the terms in the previous contract remain in effect prospectively. Mahoney, from whom Fenton said he obtained the past contract, suggested what Fenton had was proposed wording to subject firefighters to the ordinance.
“Firefighters and police officers should live in the City of Springfield,” Ward 8 councilor Ramos declared before asking Mahoney about enforcement of the 10 mile rule. Mahoney said Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant was charged with meting out discipline for violations.
When Councilors discussed tabling the matter until Mahoney could clarify the contract language and produce proof that residency was negotiated, Mahoney suggested the Council vote now. In the meantime, he would retrieve the requested information. Councilors balked and voted 7-6 to table the contract and move on with the rest of the meeting.
Firefighters, many of whom had shown up to support the contract, could be heard audibly grumbling, noting that in any event the residency language had not changed from one contract to the next.
When the meeting returned to the contract, Mahoney said he had brought up the residency issue twice during negotiations in March of both 2012 and 2013. The union did not move on the issue. Mahoney said he not to pursue it further partly because arbitration panels have rejected past attempts to include residency, while delaying the contract overall. Binding arbitration only applies to public safety workers.
The language on residency Mahoney recovered, while not clearly setting aside the ordinance, only made reference to the state’s 10 mile radius rule and had been interpreted to exclude other residency rules.
The contract passed 12-1 with only Fenton in dissent. Fenton has a standing policy of not voting for any contract that does not bring the employees under the jurisdiction of Springfield’s residency ordinance.
The rest of the evening was somewhat more upbeat. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh introduced a resolve to support Hampden County Sheriff’s alcohol treatment center. Officials from the facility explained that the current predicament came about after the winning bid to host the Center’s new home backed out. Sheriff officials are petitioning the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for access to the mitigation fund to find a new home.
Virtually all of the councilors spoke highly of the program and Walsh moved to add all of her colleagues as cosponsors.
The Council also voted to authorize bonding for the renovation of the ECOS facility in Forest Park. The home of a popular environmental science program, its supporters, particularly Springfield teacher Burt Freedman, had been pushing for the renovation for years. Plante, the city’s CAFO, told Councilors that the $4 million cost would be defrayed by $2.2 million received in disaster funding as compensation for damage to Zanetti school. The remainder would be covered by the city’s debt repayment schedule.
Freedman thanked the Council for its advocacy, “When this first started in 2009…you lined up and took a vote in support.” He also thank the numerous individuals past and present who supported the program, including the mayor and Parks Director Patrick Sullivan.
The only other item that generated debate was settlements between the city and plaintiffs who had sued the city. On the heels of a report in Masslive, the Law Department was now asking the Council to transfer $500,000 from free cash to fund the legal settlements.
Ramos asked City Solicitor Pikula about the nature of the litigation, noting that 2/3 of cases either involved the school or the police departments. Pikula agreed with Ramos’ suggestion that more recording devices in cruisers or on officers would help the city defend litigation.
Pikula claimed that recorded police interactions backed officers’ accounts around 90% of the time, but without such evidence, cases became a game of “he said, she said” situation. Ramos suggested the cameras on cruisers be more of a priority during future labor negotiations with the police.
Responding to Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, Pikula said of the $500,000, $417,000 was committed to settlements. The remainder would hopefully last until the next fiscal year begins in July.
Ramos, rising to speak again, inquired into former police officer Alex Lalos’s suit, who was injured during an off-duty incident. Chief of Litigation John Liebel told Ramos the case centered on whether Lalos retired with a work-related disability. It was in federal court because Lalos was now a resident of Florida. The Lalos settlement, about $14,000, will be paid out of the Police Department’s personnel account, not the $500,000 transfer. Still, Ramos, objecting to the settlement, unsuccessfully moved to cut $14,000 from the transfer, which then passed 12-1 with Ramos in dissent.
Passage of the casino ethics ordinance was swift and unanimous. As amended, the ordinance bans city employees who worked on the casino process from working for MGM until two years after they leave city service. The mayor and city councilors face a similar three year requirement. Sarno has been silent on whether he would sign or veto the bill, but following the unanimous vote, gave his approval today.
The final item was approval to pay a bill for services rendered last year. It passed without dissent. With the police and firefighters tied over until at least next year, the residency issue can only go so far in the meantime. Yet it remains an issue that animates councilors and all the more so in an election year.
However, while some of the questions should have been better anticipated by Mahoney, the limits of the Council and even the city’s labor relations officials were visible. Requiring police and firefighters to live in the city is the brass ring of the residency policy and yet it often runs headlong into the state labor arbitration law set up for public safety workers.
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