Friday, June 18, 2010

Ketchum, firefighters end talks

Firefighters unionize but fail to reach contract with city

Express Staff Writer

Two firefighters put out a fire in March 2008. Ketchumís nine full-time firefighters unionized in July but still havenít gotten a contract with the city. Photo by Willy Cook

Negotiations have ensued ever since Ketchum's nine full-time firefighters unionized last July, but talks have come to a complete halt without a contract being signed.

"At this point, we're stuck and don't know where to go," said City Administrator Gary Marks, adding that no further talks are scheduled.

John Rathfon, Ketchum firefighter and president of the Ketchum chapter of the International Association of Fire Firefighters, said the nine firefighters would keep doing their jobs in the meantime and not strike. But they want the city to come back to the table.

Marks said the city has followed the negotiation process laid out by state law without developing a contract both sides will sign off on. Four main issues stand in the way, with neither side straying from their stances.

The law states that if negotiations don't conclude in a contract within 30 days, all unresolved issues are to be taken up by a three-person fact-finding commission representing both sides and by a mediator.

Marks said city negotiators tentatively agreed to 23 of the firefighters' 32 demands. The commission was tasked with making recommendations concerning the remaining nine conditions.

Rathfon said that when the commission released its recommendations on April 12, the firefighters agreed to them. But, Marks said, the city doesn't want to "adhere" to the findings on four issues. And it doesn't have to—the findings aren't binding but are mere recommendations.

"Beyond the fact finding, Idaho law is silent," Marks said.

Whether negotiations will resume remains uncertain.

Ricky Walsh, vice president of the firefighter union's Northwest American district, said legal action would be taken in 5th District Court if Ketchum doesn't come back to the table and work to draw up a contract. That's because the state requires the city to bargain in "good faith" and come up with a "written contract."

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"City representatives have negotiated in good faith," said City Councilman Larry Helzel. "We carefully considered the unresolved demands and cannot agree to them. It would not be fair to taxpayers in these tough economic times."

Walsh said about 95 percent of Idaho's full-time firefighters have unionized.

Four points of contention

Marks said the unionization came at a bad time for the city, which was rewriting its employee handbook at the time. And several of the firefighters' demands conflict with planned changes for all employees. For example, the city is undergoing a conversion to an "at-will" employment policy, which means a worker can be fired anytime without proving just cause.

Walsh said the union wants "just-cause" employment, which means the city must prove just cause to an arbitrator before firing a worker. Walsh said the union is adamant about the issue because it provides security, and all other unionized firefighters in the state are just-cause employed.

Another sticking point is that the union wants senior firefighters to be given preferential treatment if layoffs take place. The city's current employee handbook, written in 2005, says that when layoffs are required, "they shall be based on seniority," but also based on the "ability to do the work."

Marks said that if a layoff is ever needed, the city must make certain the department has the firefighters with the needed skills. He said that may not be the case if the most senior firefighters are kept without considering what they can do.

The third issue is nepotism. The city's handbook doesn't prohibit married couples to work on the fire department, and two couples do work full-time for the Fire Department.

Marks said the city is willing to let those couples work together, but from here on out it wouldn't be allowed.

"It's something we contemplated in rewriting our personnel policy," Marks said, "but it hasn't been written yet."

Rathfon said the union is fine with that but wants to make sure situations such as a father and son working on the Fire Department are allowed, seeing that it's a line of work often followed by several family members, and that married couples are permitted to work in separate departments.

The last unresolved issue is compensatory-time benefits. Firefighters want more time off for overtime work than the city is willing to give. As with the three other conditions, neither side has bent.

"We can't afford them," said Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall. "If we could, I would extend those benefits to all hard-working Ketchum employees, and not just one select group."

Trevon Milliard:

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