OCEAN CITY – A councilman’s request during last night’s Mayor and City Council meeting to position the council against the general employees’ right to collective bargaining was adamantly denied by a majority of his colleagues.
Councilman Joe Hall, who is up for re-election this fall, said that a pivotal issue of the upcoming election on Nov. 6 will be the referendum on the ballot asking the voters if the general employees of Ocean City should have the right to collective bargaining.
“I think as leaders of the community the council should take a position,” he said. “My personal desire would be a position against expanding collective bargaining rights in Ocean City for the simple fact that what has been shown since making the pay and benefit changes last year is applicants for the Town of Ocean City have never been higher with record number of applications and qualifications of the applicants have been superior to the past. Therefore, I believe that the overall satisfaction of our pay and benefits package for town employees is excellent … and I don’t believe adding a third party between the management and staff will be beneficial to the voting taxpayers of Ocean City.”
Joe Hall made a motion that the council adopt the position not to support the referendum to expand collective bargaining rights to the general employees of Ocean City, and it was seconded by Councilman Brent Ashley, who has been taking out advertisements expressing his opposition to the further unionizing of the town’s work force. Currently, public safety employees have collective bargaining rights and specifically the Ocean City Police Department has collective bargaining with binding interest arbitration.
Following the last Ocean City municipal elections in October of 2010 a new majority of the council, consisting of Joe Hall, Brent Ashley, Jim Hall and Margaret Pillas, moved a number of ordinances forward that changed the salary and benefits for new hires.
By the beginning of 2012, rumors began to spread that general employees intended to pursue collective bargaining, and by February city employees packed council chambers to reveal their concerns and intentions and returned in April to remind the council that they have not backed down in their efforts.
The Ocean City Employee Coalition group was formed and stated it seeks equality, job security, consistency in rules and regulations, but most importantly an advocate.
In July, coalition member Barbara Dahan said it was a couple of years ago when city employees began to look toward collective bargaining when the City Council initiated talks about making personnel salary and benefits cuts to city expenses but it was when the changes were made that city employees reached out to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Maryland Classified Employees Association (MCEA) for assistance.
On June 28, Gregory DeMarco of the Ocean City Employee Coalition served the City Clerk’s Office with a petition entitled “Petition for Town of Ocean City Charter Amendment for Fair and Equal Representation Rights for the General Employees of the Town of Ocean City”.
The petition gathered 2,362 signatures, which 783 signatures were deemed invalid and 1,579 signatures were valid, and the coalition gained the right to have the referendum placed on the ballot in the upcoming election.
Councilwoman Mary Knight said she was dumfounded by Joe Hall’s motion but had a feeling it was coming.
“I intentionally have been very quiet about collective bargaining,” she said. “The reason being is I believe in the process.”
Knight recalled that the council voted unanimously to leave the question of whether general employees should have the right to collective bargaining up to the voters and the coalition followed the process by carrying out the petition.
“I find it extremely insulting to our taxpayer that now we are going to vote and say ‘you are not smart enough to make that decision … you have to depend on us after we gave you the right to vote on a very important decision,’” Knight said.
Council Secretary Lloyd Martin pointed out that the Ocean City Employee Coalition collected more signatures from registered voters than the amount of voters that turned out for 2010’s election.
“I don’t think it should be a political issue, I think it should be an issue for the people and let them decide … we work for them,” Martin said.
Martin furthered that the other unions in Ocean City have continued to work with the town, including giving up pay raises in the last two years because they knew it wasn’t affordable.
“This is an individual decision by each and every council member,” Council President Jim Hall said as he asked Joe Hall and Ashley to withdraw the motion. “We work for the voters and whichever way the voters go we will carry it out to our fullest … it is unfair to make the councilmembers as a group come up with a decision like this by vote.”
Ashley asserted that he is a voter and a taxpayer and it is important for council members to voice their opinion on the matter so that the public is aware of their position.
“What I like to know when I vote for somebody is, how do you feel and what do you think, and I am just not hearing it up here,” Ashley said.
Councilman Doug Cymek found it ironic that Joe Hall had made the motion when his comments to the general employees during pay and benefit discussion was “what got the ball rolling” in his estimation.
On April 2, DeMarco came before the Mayor and City Council to express why the coalition was looking to receive collective bargaining rights.
“I would like to address the state of morale among Ocean City general employees and why it has deteriorated so badly since last January … The actions of the majority on this council in this past year, attempting to pander to the worst element of the electorate by trashing city employees are unworthy of leadership,” he said at the time.
DeMarco recalled the time following 2010’s elections when the new majority of the council moved to decrease pay and benefits for new city employees.
“I believe the comments made by Councilman Joe Hall at the time helped start the decline of morale when he said, ‘When city employees retire regardless of how long they served, even if it was a lifetime, when you’re done, we are done with you’,” he recalled.
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas disagreed that the council should take a position against the referendum but supported her colleagues pointing out the general employees were contemplating collective bargaining before those discussions took place.
“When I was approached by this union, I was told this started long before the four of us [council majority], and it started with not having a voice,” Pillas said.
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed that vote should not be taken by the legislative body to make such a decision. He said it was the comments and actions by the majority of the council that pushed the general employees over the edge.
“The employees lost the trust and the confidence in this council,” the mayor said. “I think they were willing to work with us. We were partners and I have the utmost respect for our city employees. I don’t always agree with them and I am not going to tell you that I agree that collective bargaining is the right way to go. I think we can work with our employees.”
Joe Hall refused to withdraw the motion.
“What we need to decide as leaders is if we as a body want to express to the taxpayers and voters of Ocean City if this is the right thing for the town,” he said. “It isn’t about whether I upset employees or my personal action. I will take responsibility for my personal action on Nov. 6.”
The council voted 5-2, with Cymek, Jim Hall, Knight, Pillas, and Martin opposed and Joe Hall and Ashley in favor, and the motion died.