Union’s Petition For Arbitration Surpasses Goal; Council Will Need To Decide On Referendum

OCEAN CITY — Collective bargaining with binding interest arbitration for the resort’s firefighter-paramedics union is back on the table this week after the Board of Elections confirmed the petition met the required number of valid signatures.

On Tuesday, the Board of Elections announced through a letter to the Mayor and Council that the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, petition effort now required a decision by the Mayor and Council. With the required signature threshold met, the council could decide on one of several options including a referendum.

In February 2016, contract negotiations between the town and the IAFF broke down largely due to a controversial shift change proposal. Most Ocean City paramedics for years have worked 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.

After months of often contentious negotiation, the town and the IAFF this February reached an 11th-hour agreement on the new contract which, among other things, included a compromise of sorts on the shift rotation issue with two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts.

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 last November. Up to and including election day last November, union members continued to collect signatures and has gone beyond the required number to bring the binding interest arbitration issue to referendum. The IAFF submitted the petition to the city clerk just two days after the union reached an agreement with the town on a new contract.

The petition was turned over to the Board of Elections to verify the requisite number of valid signatures had been collected. On Tuesday, the Board of Elections presented a letter to the Mayor and Council confirming the IAFF’s petition had met the required number of signatures. The annotated code of Maryland stipulates the number of signatures needed for a charter amendment shall be based on 20 percent of the registered voters on the rolls at the time the petition was submitted.

With 6,067 voters on the rolls at the time the petition was submitted, the IAFF would have needed to collect 1,213 valid voter signatures, or 20 percent. The petition submitted last month included 1,656 signatures, however, the Board of Elections determined 242 of the signatures were not valid for a variety of reasons.

After the Board of Elections eliminated the 242 invalid signatures, the IAFF’s petition still included 1,414 valid signatures, or more than enough to meet the 20-percent standard of 1,213. As a result, the Board of Elections ratified the petition and the Mayor and Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve it. With a ratified petition in hand, the Mayor and Council now have three options on the next course of action to take regarding binding interest arbitration for the IAFF.

According to state code, the legislative body, in this case the Mayor and Council, have 60 days, or until June 24, to determine its next course of action. One option on the table is simply to adopt the proposed charter amendment by resolution. The Mayor and Council could also put the question to the voters in the form of a referendum.

According to City Clerk Diana Chavis, the Mayor and Council could decide to schedule a referendum for a special election, or schedule the referendum for the next municipal general election, which would be in November 2018.

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.”

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.