OCEAN CITY — It was no surprise the Ocean City Council on Monday approved a referendum question regarding binding interest arbitration for the resort’s firefighter-paramedics for the next municipal election in November 2018, but the ease in which the elected officials reached the decision certainly was.
Last week, with the clock ticking on a decision by the Mayor and Council to schedule a referendum for the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, successful petition for binding interest arbitration, the council was deadlocked in a 3-3 vote on a motion to include the referendum question on the November 2018 municipal election ballot. The alternative was to hold a special election as soon as this August, or just about eight weeks away, an alternative that had the support of at least three councilmembers last week.
Deadlocked last week at 3-3, with Council President Lloyd Martin absent, the council ultimately voted to have two resolutions ready for approval for Monday’s regular meeting, one for the November 2018 municipal election and one for the proposed special election no later than Aug. 18. When the first was presented on Monday, it was approved with a 6-0 vote, with Councilman John Gehrig absent, and the second resolution never even got lip service after a contentious debate last week. As a result, the IAFF’s binding interest arbitration referendum question will appear on the Nov. 6, 2018 municipal election ballot.
In March, 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 essentially put the ball back in the town’s court on the binding arbitration issue with three basic options on the table. The town could simply adopt binding arbitration for the IAFF with a charter amendment, an option the Mayor and Council were not ready to embrace. 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 summer election on the referendum question regarding binding arbitration, but there are strict guidelines and timetables spelled out in the state charter on the latter with a window from July 31 to Aug. 18.
IAFF leadership was pleased with this week’s decision to put the referendum question on the next municipal election ballot in November 2018 rather than rush it to a special election later this summer. IAFF President Ryan Whittington said on Tuesday choosing the municipal election route would likely assure the majority of the town’s electorate has an opportunity to weigh in on the issue.
“The IAFF supports the Mayor and Council’s decision to get this referendum on the next general election ballot,” he said. “Rather than have maybe 300 voters weigh in on this important issue, we’ll probably see 1,000-plus at the general election. We want as many town voters as possible to have a chance to decide this important issue.”
Whittington the local IAFF had been consulting with its state and national partners on the possibility of a special election as soon as August.
“The IAFF was prepared to run a campaign in August,” he said. “Now, we have time to educate the public on this issue. We might even have a forum at some point to present our views on why we believe this is the best thing and invite the Mayor and Council to present their views as well, almost in a town hall-type setting.”
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.