CLEARWATER - Contract negotiations between the City of Clearwater and its firefighters and paramedics resumed on October 22. The outcome was a familiar one; not even the presence and involvement of Chief Jamie Geer could bring the sides closer to an agreement.
Geer was the first speaker, stating that he reviewed the offers by both sides and would like to see a resolution of the contracts for 2002/03 and 2003/04, and move forward. "We all want what's fair and competitive," he said, and asked the Union to present their case to the City Council and allow them to make a binding decision.
Union President John Lee countered Geer's proposal, suggesting the use of an independent arbitrator, rather than the City Council, to make the binding decision. The City's labor negotiator, outside counsel Deborah Brown, pressed on, saying, "We can skip the Special Master process and go directly to Council... it can be done by Christmas."
Lee reiterated the Union's position that an independent 3rd party should hear the case, with the Union and the City agreeing in advance to accept his/her decision. Brown said that there was no provision under Florida law for such an arrangement and added, "We believe that the Council is an independent 3rd party."
Laughter erupted from the 30 firefighters and paramedics seated in the audience.
Union negotiating team member David Kinsey explained the cause of the laughter; "The Council is not an independent 3rd party. They've been tainted by the City Manager, tainted by the process, and tainted by two years of negotiating," he said. Another negotiating team member echoed Kinsey's distrust of the City Council; referring to the light disciplinary action taken against Assistant City Manager Garry Brumback in March for sending a threatening email, and a reported comment from the Mayor that he had feelings similar to Brumback's, he said, "The Council showed their intent of ill will against us."
Failing to convince the Union of the Council's independence, Brown presented the City's latest contract offers - one for 2002/03 and one for 2003/04, each offering a one thousand dollar bonus in lieu of a raise to all current employees, but lacking retroactivity for former city employees who worked during those years. Lee responded, "It blows my mind that you're willing to pay people who weren't here (during those contract years), but not my retired brothers who were here." Brown said, "You don't represent the people who are no longer here."
Kinsey later explained that the $1,000 bonus offer to those who were not city employees during 2002/03 and 2003/04 presents an ethical issue; it creates the appearance of the City trying to buy the contract ratification votes of new employees. David Hogan said that the Union now has 40 members who were not City employees when the current contract issues began. But with only 3 votes in favor of a similar offer during the last contract ratification vote, the City's newest firefighters and paramedics do not appear to be taking the bait.
Kinsey also explained that the $1,000 bonus does nothing to make Clearwater a more attractive place to work; "The current hourly rate does not change," he said.
Lee ended the session with an apology to Chief Geer for burdening him with the ongoing contract issues, but he said, gesturing to the firefighters and paramedics who filled the meeting room, "We have to do what's best for these people behind me."
Several days later, Chief Geer reflected on the state of the labor dispute. "There's a mentality that this has to be a fight to the bitter end. But a street brawl is not going to settle this thing." Geer says that he's asked by firefighters every day, "Chief, can you help us put an end to this thing?" There's only one option under the law, he says.
"If Union leadership thinks they have a compelling case, and if they're truly interested in bringing this to a resolution, they should take it to the Council, and to the world", Geer said. This approach would allow the Council to impose contract terms without a ratification vote by Union members. Regarding the Union's apparent mistrust of the City Council, he said, "The Council's duty under the law is to objectively consider both cases and render a decision."
Return to Home Page
Return to Current Edition