A state hearing officer has ruled that City Manager Jay Ash violated the collective bargaining laws earlier this year when he did not voice his support for a Firefighter’s Union arbitration award at a March 18 City Council meeting.
Ash said he disputes the finding and will appeal it.
“Ash sat silently by while [Councillor Brian] Hatleberg tried to persuade his fellow members to reject the award and, in these circumstances, [Ash’s] prior commitment of support was no more than a token effort to obtain funding,” read a ruling by State Labor Relations Attorney Susan Atwater. “The Law required Ash to take all steps necessary to obtain funding, which required speaking up to encourage the City Council to support the award rather than the Council resolution…The funding body could have misconstrued Ash’s silence as support for the resolution, which contravened the award…His silence at that critical time placed his support in doubt.”
The matter revolves around the ongoing Firefighter’s Union contract that was in dispute for several years, and finally went to state arbitration for sorting out in 2012.
That was a battle the City lost, with the state arbiter granting an award to the Union. With retro pay, it totaled up to just over $950,000. As required by law for such awards, Ash is required to communicate unconditional support for the award despite his personal feelings. He did that in writing several times prior to the Council meeting.
When the matter went to the City Council for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on March 18, Councillor Hatleberg offered a resolution asking the Union to go back to the table to get a slightly better deal for the City. The resolution passed without Ash speaking against it.
On many occasions, though, Atwater indicated that Ash did follow the law in making that support known. However, Atwater concluded that Ash should have sent a letter of support to Council on March 18 and should have risen to speak against the Council resolution.
“Their finding was that I should have jumped up at the Council meeting and spoken out,” said Ash. “I dispute the results and believe my actions have been very consistent with state law and good negotiating practices. I am reviewing the decision and may take it to another authority because I believe the decision is flawed in its understanding of what transpired at the meeting on March 18.”
He said he believed the entire issue to be moot because the City Council did eventually vote to fund the award at a a meeting in May.
“In this case I don’t agree with the decision, but I will abide by it,” he said. “I believe I have two other options for appealing this. It’s not unnatural in my opinion for such decisions to go under appeal.”
An attorney for the Union, Alfred Gordon O’Connell, said they welcome an appeal, but they feel it is unwarranted.
“The City Manager’s decision to appeal is unfortunate because the law has been clear for many years,” he said. “The City Manager should just accept he’s required to follow the statutory provisions and accept the decision as being accurate because it is…We disagree the hearing officer from Labor Relations made an error. She understands the law a lot better than Mr. Ash, with all due respect. We welcome an appeal to review Mr. Ash’s conduct.”
Gordon O’Connell said the Union is grateful to the Council for eventually granting the award in May. However, they don’t believe that granting vote made the situation with Ash a moot point – which the City argued was the case.
He said this has to do with what the Union considers questionable negotiating practices that they hope will not continue in the future – even as they currently sit down to negotiate another contract.
“The parties have already gone back to the negotiating table for another contract,” he said. “We have to be sure that the City Manager will adhere to the law if we have to go back to Labor Relations again. The way the City conducted its negotiations the last time in bringing in an outside contractor from Springfield with a sketchy past was not in good will. That did not breed good feelings. We hope the City Manager will come to the table himself this time.”
He said the action showed that the Union was not going to “roll over and stop” until they got justice.
No monetary awards were granted as part of the decision.
However, as a consequence of the ruling, Ash is required to sign and post a statement indicating he will follow all the applicable statutes in relation to collective bargaining. Those notices have to be posted for 30 days in areas that members of the Union commonly congregate.
The contract in question actually expired on July 1 of this year, and a new contract is already being hashed out once more.