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Contract wrangling in public bugs union

January 31, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

The city of Hagerstown is trying to trim what Mayor William M. Breichner called the "agonizing" process of settling union contracts by putting them in public view, but the method is bruising relations with union officials.

"It rubs all our people the wrong way," said Richard Jordan, the chief negotiator for the city's firefighter's union.

In the past, city officials and union representatives have met behind closed doors until a contract was settled. By then, the mayor and council basically had approved the contract, and its terms wouldn't be public until the contract was ratified, city officials and union negotiators said Wednesday.

Late last year, the mayor and council instituted a new public negotiation process. The city's police union has settled its contract - worth an estimated $5.28 million - that is expected to be adopted at next week's council meeting, but there are three contracts remaining to be settled.

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The outcome of the negotiations will affect the salaries and benefits of the 230 or so city employees who have not yet agreed to a contract. If the contracts outgrow their expected cost, which includes a 2.5 percent pay raise and a reduction in the number of unused sick days workers could sell back to the city, the outcome also could affect the city's budget.

Officials in the city's finance office said this week that managers will have to cut more than $1.8 million in projected spending to balance next year's budget.

Steven Logsdon, a union negotiator for the city's electric workers, said public negotiations may or may not affect the eventual contract, but he would like the negotiations done in private.

"I don't know what they're trying to do, really," Logsdon said. "I think they started things off on the wrong foot."

Logsdon referred to a letter that went to the city's unionized employees that talked about contract terms. Logsdon said he perceived it as an "ultimatum, either take it or leave it."

City officials have apologized for giving that impression.

At a Jan. 20 meeting, union negotiators for the city's fire, electric, and water, sewer and public works employees sat down for the first time in the new negotiation format.

After seeing how that meeting went, Logsdon said, "It's a lot easier if you're working with (city) staff" rather than the entire city council in public session.

"I just got a feeling it could be a long, drawn-out process if it's done in open session," he said.

City officials said they believe the opposite may happen.

City Administrative Services Director John Budesky, the city's lead negotiator, said holding negotiations in public appears to be more efficient. He said in prior negotiations, even though city and union negotiators would discuss issues privately, sometimes the mayor and council would be contacted by negotiators, causing confusion.

The new system "streamlines the process, and the employees are getting direct answers from the mayor and council to their requests," Budesky said.

Breichner said the public process appeared to work for the police issue, "and I don't see why it couldn't work in other areas."

Breichner said contract negotiation has historically been "an agonizing process," but he hoped it would be better now.

"I think being open and fair and out in the open helps to speed up the process, let the union know where they city's at and union people can be a little more serious about what their requirements are," Breichner said.

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