By DANIEL SUDDEATH
NEW ALBANY —
The New Albany City Council may take a more aggressive role in union contract negotiations.
With the payment of $300,000 in retroactive salary benefits to city police officers still in question, council members discussed last week ways they can play a greater part in the bargaining process.
Councilman Scott Blair has requested the body hold an executive session or a meeting to review the salaries and benefits of public safety workers in other municipalities.
“I think that will help us understand where we are in comparison to other municipalities,” he said.
Blair also expressed interest in forming a council committee to represent the body in negotiations, even if it’s just in an informative role. Traditionally the mayor has served as the primary city representative in bargaining negotiations, though the police union is nearing its third year without an official contract being agreed upon by both sides.
In November, an arbiter ruled on the side of New Albany Police Lodge No. 99 over a dispute with the city regarding its 2010, 2011 and 2012 contracts. The union sought the retroactive reimbursement of a $50 salary stipend per month for each officer for 2010 and 2011 as agreed upon by former Mayor Doug England.
England also had agreed to move the union’s holiday wages to its regular salary base, which would increase officer’s retirement pay.
For 2012, the union sought a 4 percent cost-of-living raise, which would mark the first salary hike for police officers since 2007 beyond their annual 1 percent longevity pay.
However, City Attorney Stan Robison said earlier this month that he doesn’t believe an arbiter has the power to force the city to foot what equates to about $300,000 in retroactive pay and benefits.
Council attorney Matt Lorch said last week “some areas were kind of vague” in the arbiter’s ruling, as he added the arbiter questioned his own authority in portions of the judgment.
Lorch said the council could “set those rules and clarify them as they see fit” as it pertains to its role in union negotiations.
Councilman John Gonder said he thinks it’s important for the city to have one clear voice representing New Albany when it comes to bargaining talks.
But Councilman Kevin Zurschmiede countered that at the very least, the fiscal body of the city should be kept abreast of negotiations since it will ultimately have to approve the funding.
He said the next council president — which will be appointed during the body’s first meeting in January — should consider appointing a committee that could meet with unions and possibly be present during negotiations.
“I think we need to have an ongoing dialogue with all of our departments a lot more than we have in the past,” he said.
John Hall, president of the New Albany FOP, said the police union wants to be transparent with its negotiations.
“We don’t have any problem with the council being present,” he said.
He added that with police contracts being three years behind, something should be tweaked in the process.
Hall, Robison and Mayor Jeff Gahan did meet last week about union issues, though a solution to the $300,000 retroactive pay issue hasn’t been presented by the administration.
Robison suggested earlier this month the matter could end up in court, and Councilman Dan Coffey has said the city can’t afford to pay additional salary expenses for the police department on a regular basis.
Blair said he was surprised to find out about the $300,000 in retroactive pay and the arbiter’s ruling on the matter, and that the council needs to be made aware of such situations sooner than in times past.
Charging a committee with following negotiations and reporting back to the council would at the very least keep the body better informed, Blair continued.
“I don’t want to be surprised like that again,” he said.