OCEAN CITY — Ocean City voters could be heading to a special election on the firefighter-paramedics’ collective bargaining referendum as soon as August after a divided City Council this week could not agree on a timetable for the public’s decision on the issue.
In March, the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, submitted a petition seeking binding interest arbitration after collecting signatures throughout much of the last year. In April, the town’s Board of Elections confirmed the IAFF’s petition met the required number of signatures of 20 percent of the town’s registered voters. With 6,067 registered voters in Ocean City, the union would have needed 1,213 confirmed signatures and the petition submitted came in at 1,414.
The ratified petition presented three options — the town could simply adopt binding arbitration for the IAFF with a charter amendment, the issue could be brought to the town’s electorate in the form of a referendum question in the next municipal election in November 2018 or the town could hold a special election on the referendum question regarding binding arbitration.
When the petition was ratified in April, the town had until June 24 to decide. With that date quickly approaching, the council on Tuesday explored the alternatives but could not come to any agreement. City Clerk Diana Chavis explained if the town went the special election route, the special election would have to be held by Aug. 18 based on the state’s strict timetable for referendum questions.
If the council decided on Tuesday to hold a special election on the binding arbitration referendum, the special election would have to be held no less than 40 days after that decision and no more than 60 days. That would push the last eligible day for the special election to Aug. 18.
The other alternative is putting the referendum question on the municipal election ballot in November 2018, or well over a year away. After considerable debate on Tuesday, a divided council voted 3-3, with Council President Lloyd Martin absent, to hold the special election in August. Councilmembers Wayne Hartman, Matt James and Tony DeLuca were in favor of the August special election, while Council Secretary Mary Knight and Councilmen Dennis Dare and John Gehrig sought November 2018.
As a result of the deadlocked vote, two resolutions will be prepared and presented for next Monday’s meeting, and the town’s elected officials will have to reach a conclusion on either one during that meeting, which is the drop-dead date to meet the state’s stringent referendum requirements. If each councilmember held true to their vote on Tuesday, Martin could decide the matter. However, Knight pointed out another councilmember she did not name has already said he or she will not be at Monday’s meeting.
Dare said he was in favor of waiting until the next municipal election in November 2018 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a narrow window for getting the town’s voters up to speed on the issue.
“That’s a very short time frame,” he said. “That is very little time to educate the public on this issue, especially in the middle of the summer season. I don’t think we’d be doing the public a service by holding a special election in August.”
Dare said simply adopting binding arbitration through a charter amendment without allowing the voters to weigh in was not an option, which is why he advocated for the November 2018 referendum. He pointed out the whole referendum issue was borne out the tense negotiations on the shift changes for paramedics during the last contract negotiations and said by November 2018, there would be evidence the new shift rotations were achieving the desired results.
“I certainly don’t support just adopting it,” he said. “Moving it to the next municipal election will allow the public to become familiar with this issue. That would give them a year. We can try to tell people by August that it’s going to work, or we can show them in a year that it is working.”
Hartman, however, said the referendum was more about binding arbitration than the changes in the shift rotations.
“To me, the binding interest arbitration is a much larger issue,” he said. “This is such an important issue for the town and if we wait until the next municipal election, it can get lost in all of the other elections and questions that appear on the ballot. I think there is time for the voters to understand the town’s position and the IAFF’s position.”
Hartman questioned how the council got to this critical decision with the clock ticking on the fast-approaching deadline.
“There is no more time,” he said. “This is it. Again, we’ve run out of time. That seems to be a common theme today.”
The council will decide on Monday which alternative to choose — the special election in August or the referendum question on the November 2018 municipal election ballot. Chavis pointed out the state’s timing mandates could put the special election in a window from July 31 to Aug. 18. However, it was pointed out the convention center, where the special election would occur, is booked for the Maryland Association of Counties convention from Aug. 16-19, which could complicate the potential election date.
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 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 eventually went 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.
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.”