Jul 27, 2014

Selectmen Probe Firefighter Contract Negotiations

A Jan. 2011 Memorandum of Understanding that should have been presented to and ratified by the RTM wasn't, and now restricts arbitration for the 2010-2013 contracts.

Selectmen Probe Firefighter Contract Negotiations

“Confidence in the system” -- as Selectman James Walsh put it at Wednesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting -- has been shaken again, following in the wake of the .

Research into the negotiations for the revealed that former First Selectman Kenneth Flatto did not follow proper procedure when it came to a Jan. 24, 2011 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Town and the Firefighters Union, according to labor relations attorney Patrick McHale, who is representing the town in arbitration over the contract.

According to state statute and the Town Charter, the RTM is required to ratify any contracts or documents that commit the Town to a financial obligation (in this case, the contract involves wages and pension), and this MOU is no exception. But the RTM never saw the MOU and so did not act upon it within the given 44-day window, McHale said.

Since the RTM did not reject the MOU, it became binding, and now severely restricts the issues subject to arbitration, according to McHale. The RTM had initially rejected the contract in 2010, which lead to the need for arbitration and the MOU.

McHale said he spoke to Flatto after discovering the MOU, and that Flatto said he felt the settlement was fair and wanted to keep arbitration simple.

“When the RTM rejected the 2010 agreement, it had no idea of the restrictions that resulted in this MOU,” McHale said.

The MOU essentially states that, except for three issues, the agreements reached by the Town and the Firefighters Union in July 2010 remain in effect for the duration of the contract. The three issues that can be negotiated in arbitration are:

  • Sick leave: The Union wishes to allot 30 days of sick leave to firefighters who have worked 10 or more years; and 20 days of sick leave to firefighters on the force for five to 10 years. The town wants to allot 12 days of sick leave to all employees who have been on the force for at least a year.
  • Wages: There was a pay freeze the first year of the contract (2010-2011), a 2 percent wage increase in the second year (2011-2012), and currently in place a 2.75 percent wage increase for the third year (2012-2013). The town wants to decrease the 2.75 increase, while the union would like to increase it, McHale said.
  • Pension: The Town wants to implement a 401(a) type contribution plan for all new hires employed after the start date of the contract; the Union does not want to include the new pension language.

All other aspects of the contract -- medical and dental plans, minimum manpower -- are not up for debate and can’t be discussed or negotiated in arbitration, McHale said.

The discovery spurred First Selectman Michael Tetreau to add a report on the progress of the contract negotiations and the discovery of the MOU to Wednesday’s agenda in an effort to provide more transparency on the subject.

He also hopes to improve the process of approving contracts by giving the RTM more warning and information before the body is expected to vote on the settlements.

“There is no excuse,” Tetreau said. “We want to make sure this kind of thing never happens again.

The negotiating team of Pat, Mary [Mirylees, human resources director] and myself are holding very formal negotiations to avoid this off-the-record, who-knew-what-when type of negotiation.”

There is no personal penalty or recourse for the breach of procedure, though Walsh pursued the line of questions. McHale said there is nothing in the Town Charter to address the situation, to which Walsh replied that perhaps it’s time to revise the Charter.

According to state statute, however, the municipality is at fault for the breach in that the legislative body now has no opportunity “to voice its opinion on something that costs money,” McHale said. And now the terms of the MOU are binding.

“It’s extremely upsetting to be sitting here having this conversation again,” Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey said. “These are really significant issues that affect all of us and drive up the budget.”

Tetreau said that the contract in its current from -- the agreement reached in July 2010, plus the MOU -- will be presented to the RTM at its February meeting.

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