Firefighters, district fight in court
With both sides saying they hope for a fresh start, relations between the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and the firefighters union, hint at a thaw, although resolving the years-long contract impasse will take some time.
Local 2400 reshuffled its leadership, naming Randy Kelly as vice president to back up Ehren MacDonald as president. Former vice president John Wurdinger moved on to an executive position with the parent countywide organization.
That, along with first-time district board members Virginia Chang Kiraly and Rob Silano, brought a breath of fresh air to the long impasse with the union — now heading into its sixth year — regarding its employment contract. But maybe not enough of one.
"I think every Firefighter, Staff member, Chief Officer and Board of Director recognizes the importance of treating each other with respect even when we disagree on things," Mr. Kelly said in an email. "There are still a lot of great things going on here that our members are directly involved with. For example we were invited and participated in the Strategic Planning sessions that were hosted by the Fire District."
Declaring the district "anxious to renew our negotiations in good faith," Chief Harold Schapelhouman released a draft memorandum of understanding in June as a starting point for bargaining. The memo kept firefighter salaries at the current level, with hourly wages ranging from $27.04 for probationary firefighters to $54.10 for senior inspectors.
Mr. Kelly said union leadership believed a good starting point would be informal mediation through the state Public Employee Relations Board (PERB). "At the start of this type of mediation, both sides usually sign a confidentiality agreement, so that everyone can feel safe about communicating ideas and having open and honest dialogue which will hopefully lead to a starting point where we can resume regular negotiations."
The district, in a letter dated July 25, then said it would ask for a mediator from the state. And there the process appears to have stalled yet again.
A small claims lawsuit may have stirred up the waters. Fifteen firefighters sued the district in April for money they claimed had been illegally deducted from their paychecks for health insurance.
The district's perspective, supported by the report of an independent auditor it hired, was that it had only changed the month in which insurance costs were deducted, from January to December. Premiums go up each year; the district decided to start deducting the upcoming year's amount in the last month of the previous year — essentially requiring employees to cover the cost in advance, like rent payments.
Chief Schapelhouman said that's a common practice throughout California. He explained: "For example, the first deduction at the 2012 premium rate was made from employees' December 15, 2011 paychecks. The deductions are made for 12 months at that rate, so the last deduction at the 2012 rate will be on employees' November 30, 2012 paychecks."
Making the switch "prevents the district from floating what amounts to about a $150,000 loan to employees which must be recouped through later payroll deductions," he said
In July Judge Hugo Borja ruled in favor of eight firefighters without explanation — but also awarded $2,208, less than what they asked for.
"We don't understand how that decision was made," said Michele Braucht, the director of administration services who represented the district in court.
Union president Ehren MacDonald said they were "pleased that our members were able to recover owed monies, but were saddened that they had to leave their families and go to court on their day off to get back what was rightfully owed to them. We believe that no one really wins in court, they just get resolution."
According to the fire chief, the district opted to pay instead of appealing "with the expectation that the issue would be finished."
Not so fast. On Oct. 17 the fire district filed suit against 11 firefighters for refusing to give permission to change the timing of the health insurance deductions, anticipating that when the higher premiums for 2013 are deducted in December, another fight will ensue.
"First, this lawsuit hopes to resolve the legal side of an ongoing issue about the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's methodology for paying employee health care premiums. The lawsuit doesn't seek any compensation or monetary relief from any of the involved firefighters, but rather, the district is simply asking for the legal issue to be resolved in order to avoid the continuing legal controversy," said Chief Schapelhouman.
"We simply want this issue to be resolved."
Sounds like the firefighters do, too. "We are disappointed that the fire district has taken this action against some of our members. We are hopeful that we will be able to work out a mutually acceptable solution for our membership and the fire district," Mr. Kelly said on behalf of the union.
Yet despite both parties claiming to want the same thing, resolution still appears as elusive as new contracts for the firefighters.