SEMINOLE — At the July 23 Seminole City Council meeting, several councilors criticized the process and procedure of the July 15 fire contract impasse hearing at City Hall.
The council acted as a third party at the hearing, making final decisions on a contract between the Seminole Professional Firefighters Local 2896 and the city of Seminole for this fiscal year. Among the temporary decisions they made, councilors approved a 5 percent increase on base wages effective that evening and capped the firefighters’ pension contribution at 12.5 percent of their pay, down from 15 percent. This contract expires Sept. 30 and negotiations between the union and the city continue.
Councilor Roger Edelman called the hearing “very disappointing the entire way.”
“I thought it was a mess. I personally was embarrassed,” he said at the July 23 council meeting, adding that commenters on “social media didn’t paint us in a very nice picture.”
He felt that the council was unprepared to make decisions about the fire contract at the July 15 hearing.
“I don’t think we were prepared as councilors to do it,” he said. “I don’t think we had the information necessary to make the decisions we had to make that night. I am totally disappointed by how it went. Not that fire service did not get anything they deserved, but how it was handled on our end.”
He added, “I’m not sure all of us knew what we were voting on at the time we were voting.”
Councilor Bob Matthews agreed.
“Why did we not receive a copy of the [state] statute and guidelines we were expected to fulfill at the impasse hearing once the impasse was issued?” he asked.
He also said he was “blindsided” by last-minute changes to the hearing’s procedure and confused by “poorly presented” informational handouts from the city’s negotiation team led by City Manager Ann Toney-Deal.
“Not knowing the communication details or guidelines I was at a loss as to what my privileges and responsibilities were in preparing for this hearing,” he said.
Vice Mayor Trish Springer also called the hearing “a mess.”
Though councilors received a binder with information from the city weeks ahead of the hearing, both the city and the union handed out additional information minutes before it began. Springer said the additional information was “overwhelming” and unexpected.
She added, though, that council had access to much of this information at the numerous executive sessions held throughout the year to discuss the fire contract.
“It’s up to us as council to try to retain that,” she said, as information provided during those sessions could not leave the room.
Councilor Thom Barnhorn was also overwhelmed by the “deluge of material” provided to council just before the meeting started. He noted the binder presented earlier, adding, “Then comes time for the meeting, the first thing they do is handouts, brand new material, and it became paperwork overload.”
He suggested in the future that all information provided to council for such hearings be restricted to one binder.
Mayor Leslie Waters disagreed with councilors and said she thought “the process went very well.”
The hearing was “very robust,” she added. “I was keeping up with everything. I was looking at the proper information. It was robust. Everyone had time to present their plans, their viewpoints.”
She added that there were three attorneys in attendance at the hearing — the city attorney, the city’s labor attorney and the union’s attorney — and none of them “spoke up and said we were off subject, off topic, off process,” she said. “The process rolled on. People had their say. We wrapped it up.”
Councilor Jim Quinn agreed with Waters.
“I don’t think any of us did a terrible job here,” he said. “We did what we could to try to solve the problem with 150 [people] in the audience that were all here to support the fire department.”
He added, “I don’t think we did a bad job. I think it could have come out better. It would have been much better if the union and the city agreed on a contract before we got here.”
Quinn blamed the union for the fire contract being decided at an impasse hearing.
“They wanted an impasse. They wanted to push the issues,” he said.
For the past 20 years, the union negotiated their contract on their own, he said. This year, they brought in an attorney, Jim Brantley, he added. “An outsider, a gunslinger I call him, and he was pushing the issues as hard as he could.”
Waters also placed the blame for the impasse on the union.
“We got to impasse because the fire union blew by negotiations,” she said. “They refused to negotiate and called an impasse and that’s how we got to the impasse, and certainly none of us were pleased with that.”
Edelman, though, thinks the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the city manager.
“I don’t think previous administrations would have led us to an impasse,” he said. “I don’t believe the city manager did due diligence in handling it. I don’t believe the city manager was involved in the impasse and allowed the city [labor] attorney [Tom Gonzalez] to handle everything.”
He added, “I think that it was not handled well. I do not think it should have ever gotten to us. I don’t think the seven of us should have had to make those decisions. This should have been handled ahead of time. Proper work by the city manager, at some point in time, would have solved that problem.”
Edelman added that beyond the impasse, there are other issues with Toney-Deal that he’s “not happy about.” He moved to set a workshop to discuss these issues with the city manager. This suggestion didn’t move forward, though, as his motion was not seconded by another council member.
Matthews also criticized Toney-Deal on several items, including the fact that a court reporter was not hired to transcribe the hearing. Many in the audience had difficulty hearing the councilors’ discussion, he said. If a court reporter had been hired, the city would “have a good copy of what [happened at the hearing] and everyone would feel more comfortable that they heard everything.”
Also, before the city manager rejected a special magistrate’s ruling that sided with the union on all issues in June, “the council should have had the opportunity for last-minute questions before the rejection was sent,” Matthews said.
Springer falls more in the middle, saying that on “a lot of the things I don’t agree with the city, a lot of the things I don’t agree with the union, but we have to come together as collective bodies and sit down and I am confident that on Aug. 8 there will be an agreement between the city and the union.”
Toney-Deal addressed some of the councilors’ concerns, noting that “the practice of this city has been that the city manager is not at the table at negotiations.”
She also said that it’s appropriate for the attorney to “take the lead” during hearing presentations, adding that Gonzalez has practiced labor law since the 1970s and has been working with the city since negotiations began.
“Nothing that your staff did deviated from the direction that he gave and I will simply leave it at that,” Toney-Deal added.
Since the city has never had an impasse before, there is no precedent for how to proceed, she said, adding that in her more than 30 years in government, she’s never experienced an impasse and her “track record has been settling.”
Council has had access to all information regarding the fire contract and the impasse since negotiations started, she added.
“Throughout the process you’ve been provided information,” Toney-Deal said. “Rest assured, you’ve never heard anything at this dais that hadn’t been discussed in executive session.”
Negotiations begin again Aug. 8, she added.
“At this point, I plan on being at the table in negotiations,” she said
This is “a deviation” from previous negotiation meetings, she said, and both sides will meet without their attorneys at the next meeting.