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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Opinions vary on wisdom of using arbitration in Wallingford Unions’ dispute

As published in the Record Journal on Thursday March 28, 2013

By Andrew Ragali
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2224

WALLINGFORD – Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said Wednesday that he’d rather resort to arbitration than deal with the ongoing cost of paying town employees every time Town Hall closes due to inclement weather.

Town Hall was closed on Feb. 14 as the cleanup effort began after the blizzard, and two days later Dickinson filed a memo stating that town employees who didn’t report to work that day must take a vacation day in order to be paid. Nonessential town employees had been told not to report to work that day, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy closed the state.

Personnel Director Terrence Sullivan said in early March that six of the town’s seven employee unions filed a grievance in opposition to Dickinson’s ruling. The police union did not file a grievance. Sullivan, who could not be reached Wednesday, said earlier this month that he had heard the arguments of several unions, but could not reach any compromise. He said he expected several unions to resort to arbitration,which Dickinson referred to Wednesday as “a one-time cost.”

“If every time Town Hall closes there’s a cost associated with that, that’s an ongoing cost,” Dickinson said.

Earlier this month, Sullivan said he still had to hear from two unions.

On Wednesday, Dickinson said, “I think it’s still in the grievance process,” so there’s no indication that any town employee union will decide to go to arbitration. Shelby Jackson, president of United Public Service Employees Union Local 424-14, which represents municipal managers, and Chuck Ballard, president of Local 1183 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing public works, clerical and sewer workers, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Sullivan explained in February that there are two options when settling a dispute through arbitration. Either the Connecticut State Board of Mediation & Arbitration or the American Arbitration Association can settle the grievance as a neutral party. Sullivan said settling a dispute through the state board is cheaper, but can take more time.

“The state board is flooded with grievances“ from both municipalities and private companies, he said. “It can take a year to a year and a half to get an initial hearing.”

There is a $25 filing fee when dealing with the state board, while the association charges between $250 and $300 to file a complaint, Sullivan said. Going through the association is much faster, he said, with an initial hearing usually held within 90 days, and a conclusion reached 30 days after the final hearing. But there could be arbitration fees of$1,500 per hearing when working with the association.

Town Councilor Craig Fishbein said there are two schools of thought when settling union complaints. The town can either “run and hide in the corner and agree” to what the union gives as their last offer, or “fight on behalf of the taxpayers,” a method Fishbein would agree with “more often than not.”

Fishbein said he’s been hearing in council chambers that “we’re just going to lose in arbitration,” but the councilor feels if the town doesn’t fight unions through arbitration, there’s no chance of winning.

Town Councilor John LeTourneau said fighting town employee unions through arbitration is a “huge mistake.”

LeTourneau said the cost of arbitration and personnel hours dealing with the grievance and arbitration process is wasteful and will end up costing the town more money than if Dickinson decided to change his mind and pay employees for the day Town Hall was closed.

“This is going to open up such a large can of worms that it will be years until it gets unwound,” LeTourneau said. “We’re paying (employees) to take time to file grievances. They’re on the clock.”

LeTourneau also said the town doesn’t do well in arbitration battles with town unions.

“It sounds good on the surface ... take a stand, don’t pay your employees,” he said. “But if you get into the weeds of this thing, it’s going to cost the town a lot of money. There’s a reason why unions are strong in this town, and this is an example.”

Bill would expand governing boards’ ability to meet in private sessions

As published in the Record Journal on Thursday March 28, 2013

By Ed Jacovino
Journal Inquirer

HARTFORD — Open government advocates Monday railed against a bill that would give state and municipal governing boards more ability to meet in secret to discuss important issues.

“One of the fundamental precepts of democracy is that the meetings of those the people elect to serve them in their government should be as open and public as possible,” James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said.

Smith questioned why lawmakers would consider a system that would allow elected officials to meet privately to discuss and conduct public business, and then emerge to a public meeting essentially just to vote. The proposal “flies in the face of well established law in what constitutes a meeting of a public agency,” Smith said.

The bill would change the definition of a public meeting under the state Freedom of Information law. It would enable board members to discuss public business behind closed doors even if they have a quorum — or more than half of the elected body present and more than one political party represented.

Under the proposal, those groups could meet to discuss public issues without notifying the public of the meeting, and could bar residents from attending the session. They’d just have to say the meeting was limited to “leaders.” It’s not uncommon for more than half of the members of a town council, for example, to have leadership titles.

Any board that under current law must give notice of a meeting — including boards of education and selectmen, town councils, planning and zoning commissions, and ethics boards — would be covered under the measure.

Mary E. Schwind, managing director and associate general counsel of the state Freedom of Information Commission, also criticized the proposal at the hearing Monday before the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. The measure was raised by the committee, so it’s unclear which lawmaker or lawmakers proposed the plan.

“In essence, the public would have the opportunity to view the rubber-stamping decisions already made,”Schwind told lawmakers.

She questioned why the law should change. “The law has worked well over all these years and public agencies have managed to conduct their business in public,” she said.

Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, said the top four lawmakers on legislative committees often meet behind closed doors in “screening meetings” to determine what bills can pass and what changes to make to bills before they reach the House or the Senate floors.

The privacy of those meetings is important to the process, he said.

Screening meetings are allowed under current law because they don’t involve a quorum of members.

But Smith said the measure would have far-reaching consequences in terms of the public’s right to know what their elected officials are doing.

“What we oppose is legislation that would shut that process in yet another attempt to restrict the transparency laws,” he said.