Outside counsel enters negotiations

June 06, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

For the first time in about 16 years, the city of Hagerstown is using outside legal counsel during collective bargaining with the unions representing city employees, Mayor William M. Breichner said Wednesday.

The city will pay labor attorney Richard G. Vernon of Bethesda, Md., $215 per hour to serve as the city's lead negotiator and to give the Hagerstown City Council guidance during labor negotiations, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said.

Vernon was introduced to union officials during an executive session at Tuesday's council meeting. The city has used Vernon before on workers' compensation cases and for general employment legal advice.


About 300 of the city's 460 employees are represented by unions, city officials said.

All four union groups representing city workers need new labor contracts for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Zimmerman said the Hagerstown City Council will meet with Vernon next week. Negotiations with the union groups will begin later this month.

Breichner estimated it will take at least three months to complete negotiations. The city will abide by the terms of the current contract when the existing pacts expire, he said.

Breichner said the city is using outside counsel because it is dealing with four union groups at once and because the negotiations involve complicated issues including health care and workers' compensation. Outside counsel will have a better understanding of the issues and be less emotional about them, he said.

James Bestpitch, who represents the police officers union and members of AFSCME 1540, said employees are questioning the city's decision but hope it will result in more stability in negotiations than in past years. Breichner said it will.

Some employees are upset that the city has found money to pay for an attorney when it says it is having a tight financial year, Bestpitch said.

Zimmerman said it makes sense to hire Vernon because personnel costs are a major expense. Wages, salaries and benefits represent 75 percent of the city general fund budget, he said.

Bestpitch said employees he represents are frustrated that there have been no employee negotiations in more than a year.

Steve Logsdon, who represents union members at the Hagerstown Light Department, said he has no objection to the city hiring Vernon if it will "expedite the negotiation process."

"Some movement is better than no movement at all," he said.

In February, the council approved a plan to hold union talks during meetings that would be open to the public. On March 12, the city backed off that decision after union representatives said they would rather not negotiate in public.

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