CITY HALL — Mayor Richard Bloom saw something that he didn’t recall happening in his 12 years on council at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
Marc Zamora, a member of the Municipal Employees Association, used his two minutes of public input to encourage council members to not accept the contract that union officials said had been ratified by its members.
“I’m here today to appeal to you,” Zamora said. “I want to plead and ask for an extension on the negotiated contract with the MEA.”
Zamora and what he says are 200 other members of his union have accused the union leadership of voting irregularities that render the 195 to 118 vote in favor of the contract moot.
President April Hansen denies any such claims, saying that the vote was conducted differently than in years past, but only to maximize workers’ opportunities to get their voices heard and keep the ratification confidential.
The vote for union members to ratify the contract was conducted on Monday, Sept. 12, a day before the council was due to accept it. The vote was held so close to the deadline because negotiations were complicated by the wide range of employees covered. The union represents everyone from community service officers to trash collectors and mechanics.
Unlike previous years, the voting was conducted in eight shifts. The first began at 6:30 a.m. and the last began at 9:30 p.m., Hansen said.
That was primarily to make sure that members that work swing shifts and graveyard shifts would have an opportunity to vote, unlike previous years where it was conducted in two bouts in the middle of the day.
“There was a common complaint that not everyone can come out,” Hansen said. “This year we had more takeaways, and we wanted to make sure that all of our shifts had an opportunity to participate.”
The takeaways Hansen refers to were the reduction in benefits that nearly all city employees had to accept in their contracts as a nod to worsening economic times.
The deal that membership voted on included a 2 percent cost of living salary adjustment for the first year, and a 3 percent adjustment for the second year.
It reduced the amount of workers compensation available to workers after 30 days off of work, and gives City Hall more flexibility in how much it has to pay an employee if they are moved to a lower-paying job for budgetary reasons.
That provision is called a y-rating, and is considered a prime protection, Zamora said.
“It was an exciting time, we were united as a union,” Zamora said.
When Zamora went to vote, the things he calls “irregularities” became apparent.
First, he was not asked to sign by his name when he checked in to vote, and he was actively encouraged not to sign his ballot, which is normal procedure for officer elections in the MEA.
The ballots were then placed in a zip bag rather than a locked box, and, Zamora says, taken home by the union’s treasurer.
“It’s the first time this has ever happened, period,” Zamora said.
Zamora began cycling a petition through the membership as soon as he heard the results read on Tuesday, just four hours before the council meeting was set to begin.
“We had a small time frame of ballots going in that day, and the city council voting on it that day,” Zamora said. “It gave us a small time frame on protocol of what we needed to do.”
In those few hours, Zamora and his compatriots gathered 200 signatures to request a re-vote.
At the time, Donna Peters, director of human resources with City Hall, said she had not been told of any violations of the bylaws.
“They also have a hired firm that represents them and was a chief spokesperson at the table,” Peters said. “They did not notify me that there were any improprieties.”
There wasn’t time to notify her, Zamora said.
“We did not know the chain of command, that Donna Peters was to be notified, or the city manager himself,” Zamora said.
Zamora alleges that the bylaws were violated, and that employees are supposed to sign each ballot. Hansen disagrees.
“There are very clear parameters for the election of directors,” Hansen said. For the ratification of the contract, that is not the case.
“There are clear parameters for quorum, but as far as conducting the vote, there is an ambiguity,” she said.
The legal group hired by MEA counseled that they make the ratification an anonymous process, and so they tried to prevent voters from signing the ballots.
She chalks up the confusion to misinformation and poor communication, which is challenging given the huge diversity of the union.
“It’s incredibly challenging, not because of the people involved, but the inconsistent communication. That’s why things like this blow out of control,” she said. “We can’t just send out a mass e-mail and hope everybody gets it.”
If the membership decides to pursue allegations of impropriety, their recourse is to go to the Public Employee Relations Board with their concerns.
“If the union believes there’s a violation of collective bargaining statute, PERB has initial and exclusive jurisdiction to evaluate that claim,” said Les Chisholm, division chief of the Public Employee Relations Board.