Take My Council, Please: Halt & Catch Fire Chiefs…
SPRINGFIELD—City Councilors here turned back an already-expired labor pact covering only ten employee in the latest battle over the issue of residency for city employees. The pact covered a four-year period ending this past June. That outstanding gap has been an impediment to future labor agreements city officials said.
The dispute over the fire chief’s contract took up a sizeable chunk of the nearly two-hour meeting with councilors lobbing complaints and objections at Springfield HR/Labor Relations Director Williams Mahoney. Councilors argued the contract’s decades-old residency provisions were unenforced, pointing to independent but related litigation on this very contract. Mahoney countered the city would have a stronger hand at imposing residency on public safety workers if it moved beyond this contract.
The Monday City Council meeting was chaired by Council Vice-President Orlando Ramos, filling in for President Michael Fenton who was out of town. At-large councilor Thomas Ashe was also absent.
The debate over employee residency has been raging for some time, however councilors had only recently gained traction. Earlier this year, they overturned a mayoral veto and limited the mayor’s ability to grant waivers to the policy. Meanwhile, a “10-citizen suit” filed to compel the city to enforce the residency ordinance—and terminate fire chiefs who are not city residents—had opened another front in the battle, one which councilors were keen to join by rejecting the labor pact.
Much of the agenda was boilerplate, although utility reports were put in committee after Ramos called for a representative of the administration to explain it.
The revenue and expenditures reports for June and July were accepted without much debate, although Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, the Finance Committee Chair, said he wanted to hold a meeting to discuss were surpluses ran in the budget with an eye toward bulking up the city’s yawning pension liability deficit.
Grants were accepted for the Animal Control, Elder Affairs, Health, Library and Police departments. The Council also authorized payment of some bill from the previous year and property transfers. Ordinances on tap either advanced or remained in committee.
Mobile food truck and animal control ordinances remained in committee while two zoning changes moved to the Planning Board and 1s an environmental signing ordinance received initial approval.
The Council also approved a $97,364 transfer to the settlement account after the city exhausted its appeals in an arbitration dispute involving the termination of a city employee. The employee had been terminated following an allegation of sexual harassment, but the punishment was deemed too severe, especially given the employee’s intellectual challenges. The Council approved the transfer without dissent on a recorded vote.
But the main event was the contract vote.
Mahoney, the city’s top labor negotiator, said the bargaining unit included eight district chiefs, an alarm supervisor and a repair supervisor. He explained that approving this contract would not affect the city’s bargaining position on residency, but would give the chiefs a raise for first time in four years.
Cautioning councilors about the difficulty of enforcing residency on a public safety union, Mahoney warned, “They have a different closure mechanism.”
Such unions, unlike teachers, public works employees and others, can request binding arbitration if negotiations drag on. That decision imposes a settlement on the city and the union, barring rejection from, in Springfield’s case, the City Council. Additionally, residency or any relevant ordinance can be bargained or contracted away under Massachusetts collective bargaining law.
Councilors were not objecting to the contract, but what they considered the lack of enforcement of the contract’s existing language. Unlike the other three public safety unions—patrolmen, firefighters and police supervisors—adherence to the residency ordinance is in the district fire chief’s contract. Mahoney explained, anecdotally, that provision had not been enforced since the 1970’s.
While his department believes it should apply, Mahoney said Monday, as he has in the past, the city does not want to act unilaterally lest it face and lose in arbitration and pay out damages.
“I’d rather do this at the table than…taking his up at arbitration or grievance arbitration,” Mahoney said. He also added that if the city can get residency into the contract for the larger firefighter bargaining unit, it would be far easier to get the district chiefs to also agree.
The 10 citizen suit has called for a judge to declare the residency language applicable. That move would effectively force the city to fire the non-resident fire chief—and give a leg up to city residents that aspire for those positions.
Councilors seemed eager to see how the lawsuit plays out and indeed send a signal to the court.
“I think we need to do our due diligence as a council and let the court know where we stand,” said at-large Councilor Justin Hurst, one of the members advocating most fiercely on this issue.
Not all councilors, agreed, however.
“So your point is, in the last X number of years we have added residency to 11 contracts,” bringing the number to 16, Councilor Allen said to Mahoney. He noted that the city had increased the number of labor pacts that follow the residency ordinance from five to 16 among those eligible—teachers and certain administrators are exempt from residency ordinances under state law.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea concurred, saying it was unfair to delay the chiefs’ contract over the enforcement dispute. Hurst replied, “I think when we talk about fairness we have to talk about the people who would be in these positions if residency was enforced.”
Others councilors chimed in by invoking the passage of the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11 only the day before and others more bluntly accused opponents of playing politics.
“You want to throw politics into this discussion. Do that in the mayor’s office,” at-large Councilor Timothy Rooke said.
Some councilors were clearly torn on the subject. Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez, noting personal and social relationships with some of the district chiefs, visibly struggled with his decision.
Ultimately, however, Gomez and six of his colleagues voted the contract down. He, Hurst, Ramos and councilors Bud Williams, Melvin Edwards, E. Henry Twiggs, and Marcus Williams voted to reject the contract. Allen, Rooke, Shea and councilor Kateri Walsh voted to approve it.
During the meeting, Mahoney had said rejection would lead to a further attempt by state labor mediators to find a solution although binding arbitration, likely in the next six to eight months, was likely. Because the pact matched raises most other units had received, it is not clear how much different an arbitrator’s judgment would be. Depending on how the litigation over the residency ordinance and the district fire chiefs goes, the Council could reject an arbitrator’s award, too.
The litigation itself could be decided sooner, however. Springfield Law Department officials said the fire chiefs’ union has joined the suit and a hearing has been scheduled for October on a motion to dismiss. Should the plaintiffs be found to lack standing, there may little left for councilors to argue against when the contract comes before them again.