Opinion column: UG commissioners did the right thing by skipping Thursday’s meeting

Window on the West
Opinion column

by Mary Rupert

The Unified Government commissioners who missed Thursday night’s special meeting on the fire study did the right thing.

I don’t know whether they were sick, had something else planned, or whether they just didn’t want to go, but I believe the meeting was ill-advised. Only four of the 10 commissioners showed up, and because there was no quorum, it was not an official meeting.

I wish I had not attended it, as it reminded me of a couple going through a nasty divorce. Were both sides at the same meetings these past few years? Their stories were so different, it’s hard to tell.

A few people have asked me what my opinion is on this issue, so I thought I would share it. I think it can be a thorny issue. The people asking me what I thought were not anyone working at the UG and not the firefighters.

Usually, getting an ordinance passed at the UG requires at least two meetings. At the first meeting, perhaps in a standing committee or a special session, the ordinance is discussed. Any changes may be proposed then. Then, if it looks like the committee or majority of the commission might support it in some form, it comes back to the commission with any changes about two weeks later for a vote. Thursday night’s proposal, in the agenda, was the first discussion of the ordinance, and a vote was scheduled the same night.

The meeting was scheduled on Tuesday, only two days before it was to happen. There was a lengthy report of more than 1,000 pages attached to the agenda, and not much time to read it in advance of a scheduled vote. I read the first 28 pages of the report and the proposed ordinance, but there wasn’t really time to read through each page of the rest of the 900-page lists of individual firefighters’ names and their records on trading and selling shifts. Even if they had a quorum, it is possible the commission might have not voted on it that day.

Commissioners in the past few months have told the mayor and administration a couple of times that they do not want a vote scheduled at the same time as the initial discussion on the issue. They want some time to look at it and think it over, read the lengthy report, maybe discuss it with constituents. This change to UG policy on employees accepting outside pay for their UG work, not being an emergency ordinance, should not have been scheduled to be voted on at the same time as the information was presented. The commissioners do not like to be hurried into making a hasty decision, and have said that several times in the past on other issues.

Mayor Mark Holland last week said the issue came up now because it was an end-of-the-year report about the Fire Department.

With the transition from Mayor Holland leaving office and Mayor-elect David Alvey taking office this week, it became clear from interviews and stories on Thursday before the meeting that the two did not exactly share the same perspective on this issue. Under the UG’s practices, the mayor has sole control over what goes on the agenda. The mayor may put items on the agenda, commissioners have to ask the mayor if he will put an item on the agenda, and then that is up to the mayor, in the UG’s past practices. The UG Commission was correct to wait for the new mayor before taking action, since anything they did last week could be wasted time for them if the new mayor decides not to take it up again.

Mostly on Thursday, I was very sad that their management problems were being portrayed as criminal offenses. To me, it is just an administrative and management issue. I view the UG as the employer, with the power, and the firefighters as the employees. That means the power in the relationship resides with the UG, and they should be careful not to retaliate when facing an employee issue.

The proposed ordinance on Thursday may have resulted in a power shift in the UG, also. The UG administrator would have the authority under the proposed ordinance to approve firefighters or employees accepting compensation from other employees for their work, such as “selling shifts.” This would be a power shift from the current practice, where the firefighters, their supervisors and the fire chief had this authority.

There was an allegation from the mayor that a threat had been made against him on social media by a firefighter. My opinion on that is that it was not a threat. I thought it was sort of a smart-aleck remark, but I didn’t think it was dangerous. The mayor also said there was a hostile attitude on the part of the union. There should certainly be an effort on the part of the union to change any hostile attitudes, as there should be on the part of management.

I believe that management should make a stronger effort to treat employees well, in all departments, and that employees should make an effort at the same time to try to resolve their differences, without unnecessary drama on either side. Management should be trying to lift up their employees, and help them develop their talents. Setting traps is not the way to retain employees. If management wants employees to change, why not offer positive incentives to them instead of these negative charges?

I don’t think it works, in management, to say the names of employees in public who you are having a dispute with.

After seeing all the names of employees thrown out at this meeting, I was very disappointed. The main reason for my disappointment is that these individuals joined the department to fight fires, and they are following the same procedures that have been in place for more than 30 years, according to people who have worked there.

These are old ways of working that were obviously developed as the department’s way to deal with people who need time off, or the department’s way of dealing with overtime. The mayor stated that these policies of selling shifts was costing the UG almost a million dollars. To me, it seems that if the practice of selling shifts is banned in the future, it’s possible that the UG might end up hiring more workers or paying more in overtime, although that would need to be studied before knowing it for sure.

Frankly, whether someone fills out his work forms correctly, or whether he trades shifts or pays for them, and how much money he gets paid after negotiations with the UG, is a concern of the bean-counters, just mostly paperwork, and doesn’t seem that important to me. Firefighters are not accountants, nor are they lawyers or administrative assistants. They are there to fight fires.

In my opinion, you couldn’t pay anyone enough to run into a burning building and save lives. That said, I do recognize that there is only a finite amount of money available. Firefighters should work more with the UG administrator to try to stay within the budget.

The fact that a union leader is being cited in this fire study report is very concerning to me, also. I believe a couple of designated union leaders in the Fire Department should be paid full-time by the UG for their union work, and should not have to have any other duties. They are very much needed, especially now. I believe their group provides a way for employees to express their feelings in the case of any disputes or problems at work – something that should be recognized as very valuable to the UG. If the union can help resolve a situation when it is small, they will avoid problems getting bigger, and they will retain an employee with experience who might otherwise have quit.

The turmoil and discouragement seen among the firefighters from Thursday night’s meeting will be a relationship that is hard to repair. This meeting caused more divisiveness among employees and the community.

Yes, I think perhaps that some firefighters would benefit from a training class on how to handle their grievances, and to refrain from making any personal remarks about anyone. Taunting people or insulting them doesn’t work. Instead, they should stick to talking about the issues that they are concerned about, leaving out personal remarks. This is usually a more successful way to resolve differences. The top people at the UG likewise may need a class on how to refrain from provoking employees.

A leader of the fire union has been quoted in other media as saying that the contract did not prohibit them from trading and selling shifts to other firefighters, and that there was nothing illegal about it.

The question remains, if there was more money being spent than the UG intended, who is responsible? In some private corporations, the CEO in charge at the time a contract was approved with loopholes in it allowing cost overruns could be fired, because he or she is ultimately responsible.

The firefighters were not allowed to present their side at Thursday night’s meeting, so some of them spilled over into the lobby at City Hall, and some thoughts were expressed by a retiree.

While the Holland administration has often talked about its openness, it has been my experience that there are degrees of openness. Yes, government became more open after the open meetings and records legislation was passed in the 1970s. But quite often, people in government ask what does the law require to be open, instead of looking at openness as the goal. The Holland administration opened up some new UG statistical and government information via computer and cable television to the public, including the televising of UG meetings, which I view as a positive development. If this government really does belong to the people, then the people should be able to know what’s going on.

From my perspective, there is also a lack of openness in governments in Wyandotte County, as many of them have some sort of rule in place prohibiting their employees from talking to the media. They funnel the official comments through a spokesman and prohibit their employees from speaking to the media. I see this as an effort to control everything that is said about them, and this is the reason that sometimes we can’t get information from employees for our stories. I have been told by UG employees many times that they are not allowed to talk to me.

Some people might be surprised at my opinion on the issues. I try to keep my personal opinions out of news stories, and occasionally I will later share my opinion in an opinion column.

When I saw the UG agenda for Thursday night’s meeting, my initial reaction was it was a case of “sour grapes” from the mayor, who was opposed by the fire union in the last election. And it looked like it was a personality clash. Firefighters actively supported Alvey in the election.

Observers have told me that many of the past mayors have expressed frustration at dealing with the fire union. This is a strong union, and they have not only fought fires, they have fought for their rights. I do not agree with contract negotiating tactics of “getting something” on the union and holding it over their heads during the next contract negotiations. That would be really low, and I think the UG should be better than that. I don’t want any of my tax dollars spent on investigating each other for political purposes. I do not support negative tactics on the part of the union, either. I am an advocate for positive incentives, not negative tactics.

In summary, last week the union was standing up to the UG. The UG’s mayor was standing up to the union. And the UG Commission was standing up to the mayor.

If the UG wants a better relationship, its leaders at the top should set the tone. The firefighters should try to work out any differences in a peaceful manner. I hope that both the UG, firefighters and the union can start anew and work for a better relationship.

To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email maryr@wyandottedaily.com.

2 thoughts on “Opinion column: UG commissioners did the right thing by skipping Thursday’s meeting”

  1. Thanks for your article and we hope
    to do our part to make this City that we love to
    serve even better and run properly. We are
    tax payers also and want them used wisely.

  2. Well it’s a big deal to me. I pay a lot of taxes each year and I don’t have a pension. I want to know my money is being spent wisely.

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