News - April 7, 2010

Mediation fails to restart talks

by Renee Batti

The March 25 mediation session between the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and its firefighters ended in fizzled hopes that the two parties would resolve enough differences to return to the bargaining table, according to Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the fire district.

"Unfortunately, disappointingly, mediation was not successful," Mr. Schapelhouman said. "There is no plan at this point to have another mediation session."

The firefighters have been working without a contract since July 2008. Negotiations ceased in May or June 2009, and on June 15, the firefighters' association filed a grievance with the state's Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) alleging bad faith and "regressive" bargaining on the part of the district.

Last week's mediation session was an attempt "to go back to the negotiations table," said John Wurdinger, a district fire captain who represents the firefighters. "But we don't plan on meeting with them again at this point in time."

Chief Schapelhouman said the decision not to continue with mediation was "their decision, not ours. I personally didn't feel we were through with mediation."

The district board will meet in closed session on April 20 to discuss the status of the impasse, and give staff direction on how to proceed, Mr. Schapelhouman said.

The grievance

The PERB grievance was composed of three general areas, one of which was recently dismissed by the regional attorney reviewing the complaint, and two of which were allowed to go forward to a hearing by PERB, according to Rick Bolanos, the district's attorney for labor negotiations.

He said the green-lighting of the two elements of the grievance wasn't a ruling on their merits; rather, it means that the allegations deserve a hearing by PERB to determine if they are true.

Mr. Wurdinger said firefighters wanted to try mediation rather than wait for a PERB hearing because of the length of time required for the process, which can be well over a year. "Our goal is not to win the PERB case; our goal is to get a contract," he said.

He noted that firefighters haven't had a salary increase for nearly three years, and have had no increase in medical benefits for nearly five years.

The district has said the firefighters were asking for substantial raises in each year of a multi-year contract, including an 11 percent raise in the first year. Before talks broke off last year, the district was proposing to postpone pay raises until this year.

Mr. Wurdinger said last week that the firefighters "are looking for contract language, not necessarily a dollar amount."

He pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal article on the district's strong financial position. "If the fire district was under financial hardship, they could legally (freeze salaries)," he said. "If the fire district was under financial hardship, we'd let them do that."

But the article said the district is "in good financial shape. You can't have it both ways," he said.

The district has curtailed spending since the economic downtown in late 2008, postponing capital purchases and construction. It has also guarded its $2.5 million reserve, considering it "a fund of last resort," Chief Schapelhouman told the Almanac last year.

Property tax revenue has been flat as a result of the recession and falling housing prices, and the district's employee costs are rising in proportion to the overall budget.


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