OCEAN CITY — Just two days after the Town of Ocean City and its firefighter-paramedic union reached an 11th-hour agreement on a new contract, union officials submitted a petition at City Hall seeking a referendum for binding interest arbitration.
Last Tuesday with the clock ticking down on the negotiations deadline, the Mayor and Council and the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or local 4269, reached an agreement on a new contract which to some degree represented a compromise of sorts on the controversial shift change among other things. The contract also provides for employees to be advanced one step in the salary structure and to be awarded a 1.5-percent cost of living allowance (COLA) on July 1, 2017 and again on July 1, 2018, but the shift change issue remained a sticking point despite the agreement reached last week.
Most Ocean City paramedics currently work in 24-hour shifts, followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons, including potential missed calls, delayed responses and national trends, the town remained adamant about phasing out the 24-72 shift rotation in favor of an alternative 12-hour shift or some hybrid of the two. The contract agreed upon by the parties near the deadline last week represents a compromise of sorts, with two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts.
The contract was ratified somewhat begrudgingly by union members, who two days later submitted a petition to the city clerk seeking binding interest arbitration for IAFF members in the future. The petition, if ratified, could bring the issue to the resort’s electorate in the form of a referendum question in the next municipal election in 2018, which is now less than two years out.
Throughout much of last year, as the negotiations over the new contract continued with no accord reached on the proposed shift change, IAFF members began collecting signatures from resort voters seeking to get a referendum question that would provide binding interest arbitration for the union, similar to that currently enjoyed by their Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) brethren.
However, the IAFF did not acquire the requisite number of signatures in time for the municipal election in November, and with the clock ticking on the deadline for negotiations, which expired last Tuesday, February 28, at midnight, union leaders turned their attention to the contract negotiations and essentially back-burnered the petition drive. Up to and including election day last November, union members continued to collect signatures and apparently went beyond the required number to bring the binding interest arbitration issue to referendum.
To get the issue to referendum, the union would need valid signatures from about 20 percent, or roughly 1,500, of the resort’s registered voters. On Tuesday, IAFF President Ryan Whittington said the union had collected in excess of 1,600 signatures. City Clerk Diana Chavis on Tuesday said, and Whittington confirmed, the union had submitted 391 petition signature pages last Thursday, just two days after an agreement was reached on the new contract.
Each page could hold as many as five valid signatures from voters and most did, according to Whittingon, although some includes just two or three, or even one in some cases. Nonetheless, the union’s petition contains about 1,600 voter signatures, or more than enough to reach the roughly 1,500 minimum.
Of course, the signatures will need to be verified before the petition is approved by the Board of Elections, which will carefully vet each of the signatures to determine they are valid. Chavis said on Tuesday she was now in the process of coordinating meeting dates with the Board of Elections members to begin the signature vetting process, which could be complete by the end of this month or early April.
As far as the timing of the petition submittal, Whittington explained on Tuesday the intent all along was to get the binding interest arbitration referendum on the ballot for the municipal election last November, but when it appeared to be a longshot with the deadline issues, the IAFF redoubled its efforts on the ongoing contract negotiations with the Mayor and Council.
“We were collecting signatures the entire time up to and including election day,” he said. “It was our focus during much that time and we couldn’t dedicate our time to continuing negotiations with the Mayor and Council over the new contract. When we didn’t meet the deadline to get the petition submitted in time for the election, we decided to refocus our attention on the contract negotiations. Now that the contract has been approved, we turned our attention back to the petition effort.”
According to the language in the petition, “the Council shall have the authority to recognize and engage in collective bargaining with one or more designated bargaining representatives of certain employees of the emergency medical services division of the Ocean City Department of Emergency Services, and the Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Department, and shall have the authority to enter into a binding collective bargaining agreement with said representatives. The Council shall provide by ordinance for binding arbitration with the designated bargaining representatives in order to resolve labor disputes. The ordinance shall provide for the appointment of a neutral arbitrator by the parties to the arbitration who shall issue a binding decision to be implemented as part of the following year’s budget process and which shall 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.”