OCEAN CITY — With contract negotiations underway between the town of Ocean City and its police officers, firefighters and paramedics, a former councilman and his colleague still at the dais made a pitch this week for the salary talks to take place under the public’s eye, but it appears to be too late in the game to make the change at this point.
Ocean City is currently negotiating a new contract with the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 10, and the chapter of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), the union which represents firefighters and paramedics, on a new collective bargaining agreement as both groups’ current contracts are set to expire at the end of the fiscal year.
The talks have been going on for months, largely behind closed doors because of sensitive salary, benefits and pension elements, and it appears both could be resolved within the next two weeks. The FOP contract is reportedly further along and could be ratified sooner.
The Ocean City FOP Lodge 10 earned the right to bargain collectively with binding interest arbitration in 2002 after an endorsement by the town’s voters through the referendum process. The firefighters and paramedics, through the IAFF, were granted collective bargaining power, without binding interest arbitration, in 2007 by a simple vote of the council.
On Tuesday, former Councilman Joe Hall addressed the Mayor and Council and pitched an idea to allow for more transparency in the current contract negotiations.
“I know you’re in negotiations with employees and I want to express an idea,” he said. “I’d like you to consider holding negotiations, as much as possible, in the public eye.”
While personnel issues and salary discussions have traditionally been held in closed session, Joe Hall, who lost his seat in last November’s election, said there was no good reason why the weighty contract talks with the town’s public safety employees should not take place out in the open.
“You’re not legally obligated to do this behind closed doors,” he said. “I believe engaging the voters and the taxpayers in the process will allow the people who are going to pay the bill to be involved. I encourage you to do the best for the taxpayer as you possible can.”
At the end of the meeting, Councilman Brent Ashley broached the subject again, asking City Solicitor Guy Ayres if there was anything on the books requiring the collective bargaining negotiations to take place in closed session. Ayres said there was not anything specific, although Council President Lloyd Martin said all parties would have to agree to conduct the contract talks in public.
“You’d have to have both parties agree to negotiate in public,” he said. “I’m not sure where they stand on that.”
With the FOP and IAFF negotiations well underway and with a resolution for both contracts in sight, it appears unlikely the council or the attorneys for the unions would agree to open the talks up to the public at this late juncture. Martin said it was likely too late this time around, but the council would consider opening future labor contract negotiations to the public.
“Those negotiations are going well, and we don’t want to derail that process now,” he said. “It is something to consider in the future.”
Ashley agreed it was probably too late in the current contract negotiation process to consider holding the talks in public session, but urged his colleagues to consider a format change in the future.
“I understand that,” he said. “I just agree the people who are going to pay for that should have some input.”
It’s important to note a pay freeze has been in place for the town’s public safety employees since the economy turned south in 2009, but both groups are expected to gain salary increases this year, according to sources speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Both union contracts are set to expire at the end of the current fiscal year, which is expediting the need to get the new contracts ratified before the upcoming budget talks for fiscal year 2014.
With salary increases expected for both unions as well as the town’s employees after the long spell of going without, a major sticking point in the deliberations dates back to a change made by the previous council to the pension system for new hires.
Although it’s unknown to the degree of animosity that has taken place during the talks, which are primarily handled by the town’s labor attorney and respective union lawyers, it’s clear there is a desire among union leaders to return to the former pension system.
Back in 2011, the council voted in a divided vote to alter the city’s pension plan for new hires to a defined contribution plan because the majority of the council felt it would eliminate long-term debt for the taxpayers. The idea behind the change was the employee adds his or her respective share toward the pension and the town matches it in a pay-as-you-go format.