UPDATED: Ocean City Council, Firefighters Union Spar Over Petition

OCEAN CITY — The Mayor and Council on Tuesday fired off a lengthy statement of opposition to the ongoing petition drive by the Ocean City’s firefighter/paramedics union seeking to put a referendum for binding interest arbitration before voters this fall.

In late February, the clock expired on negotiations between the town and the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, on a new three-year contract, resulting in the town’s “last, best and final” offer essentially becoming the new contract by default. The negotiations broke down in late February over the town’s unwavering position on eliminating the paramedics’ long-standing 24-hour shifts.

Currently, most paramedics work in 24-hour shifts, followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons, including potential missed calls or delayed responses, the town remains adamant about eliminating the 24-72 shift rotation in favor of an alternative 12-hour shift or some hybrid of the two. Eliminating the 24-hour shift became a point of contention in the negotiations for a new contract for the IAFF 4269, forcing the union to walk away from the bargaining table.

The IAFF 4269 has since filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the town of Ocean City over the shift schedule issue. No formal action has yet been taken on the unfair labor practice complaint and the two sides appear as far apart as they have ever been on the issue. Part of the problem is the IAFF 4269 does not have the same binding interest arbitration enjoyed by the OCPD and its union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) 10.

Early last month, the IAFF 4269 began collecting signatures in support of a petition to amend the town’s charter to provide binding interest arbitration for fire and emergency medical services personnel. If the union is successful in collecting the signatures of the requisite 20 percent of the registered voters in the resort, a referendum question could appear on the ballot for the general election on Nov. 8.

However, while the IAFF members have been collecting signatures and reporting a positive reception from citizens, the Mayor and Council until this week have remained mum on the petition for binding interest arbitration for the union. Mayor Rick Meehan said on Tuesday the town’s elected officials had declined to speak publicly about the petition drive for a charter amendment because they held out hope for a resolution of the outstanding issues, namely the proposed elimination of the 24-72 shift rotation.

“The Mayor and Council have remained quiet on the petition drive because we believed there could still be an open dialogue on some of these issues with the shift schedules, but the union has walked away from the table and there haven’t been any more discussions,” said Meehan.

While the IAFF members continue to collect signatures, the Mayor and Council this week formally released a statement in an attempt to clear up some of the perceived misinformation in the proposed petition for referendum.

“It has come to our attention that town employees and members of the International Association of Firefighters Union (IAFF) have been going door to door in Ocean City with a petition to collect signatures to have a referendum for collective bargaining with binding interest arbitration placed on the ballot this fall,” the statement reads. “First, we want our citizens to know that we respect all of the paid firefighter/paramedics and Fire Marshal’s Office employees that are members of the IAFF and the valuable service they perform in Ocean City. However, with numerous misstatements in the information being presented to the public, we feel it is important to give citizens our thoughts on this petition drive.”

The petition seeks a charter amendment that would allow a neutral third-party single arbitrator to resolve impasses when contract negotiations break down, as was the case this winter with the proposed elimination of the 24-72 shift rotation.

“The way the petition is written, they would get the right to have a single arbitrator, not the Mayor and Council, make all decisions with regard to pay, benefits, scheduling and all items directly affecting these departments and ultimately the taxpayers of Ocean City,” the city’s statement read.

The Mayor and Council contend the petition as worded would allow the union to bypass contract negotiations with the town and go directly to the arbitrator whose decisions would be binding.

“This one single arbitrator would not be from Ocean City and would not represent you, the voters and taxpayers,” the statement reads. “The process, as written in this proposed charter amendment would not even require the bargaining efforts between the IAFF and the Mayor and Council to reach an impasse before the IAFF could demand that all decisions go directly to the arbitrator.”

The town’s formal statement released on Tuesday suggests the petition, if successful, could put all weighty decisions in the hands of a single neutral arbitrator and not in the hands of those elected to negotiate contracts in the best interest of the citizens.

“The Mayor and Council do not support this petition of the proposed charter amendment,” the statement reads. “We do not feel this is in the best interest of our taxpayers and, in fact, this action could potentially result in an increase in the tax rate. The citizens of Ocean City elected the Mayor and Council to represent their interests, not a single arbitrator.”

The council’s statement released on Tuesday suggests the current system with collective bargaining for the IAFF has worked thus far, the current impasse over the 24-72 shift rotation notwithstanding.

“As background, we gave the members of the IAFF collective bargaining privileges by a vote of the Mayor and Council in 2005,” the statement reads. “This right did not include binding interest arbitration, but gave the right to the IAFF to bargain on behalf of their members. Since that time, we have successfully bargained three contracts.”

IAFF 4269 President Ryan Whittington called this week’s statement by the city “nothing other than an ill-considered first salvo in the council’s campaign against binding interest arbitration for firefighter/paramedics and fire marshals.

“Contrary to what the mayor read, the words of the referendum measure were approved in an opinion by Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals issued in 2012,” Whittington said. “Why is arbitration important?  Just a few months ago the town was found to have suspended a firefighter/paramedic without just cause. The independent arbitrator heard the city’s reason for the suspension, reviewed all evidence, interviewed fire department command staff and the firefighter/paramedic. After all items were considered, it was found that a 10-plus year veteran of the department was truly suspended without just cause. At the time, the mayor was the acting city manager and it could have been resolved at his level.”

Whittington said the citizens have been showing “overwhelming” support for the union’s efforts.

“I want to be clear to the citizens that the request for binding interest will help avoid labor disputes like the current dispute over scheduling. The mayor’s saying that the arbitrator would not have the best interest of the tax payer at heart is completely false,” Whittington said. “In my statement released last month, it is clear that the arbitrator would be required to ‘take into account the financial condition of the Town and the reasonable interests of the employees and the Town relating to the terms and conditions of employment.’”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.