Lexington's Urban County Council on Tuesday voted 8-5 to give itself authority to accept or reject future collective bargaining contracts that Mayor Jim Gray or his successors sign with public safety unions.
With the city financially strapped, there had been sentiment on the council to claim a say in the contracts, which have helped spur a 30 percent increase in compensation for public safety workers during the past five years.
Kentucky statute governing Lexington's collective bargaining does not expressly give the council a role in approving such contracts. In fact, the city's law department advised the council in 2005 that it could not vote to reject or approve the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by then-Mayor Teresa Isaac.
While Gray supports giving the council power to reject collective bargaining contracts, it's not clear that its disapproval would stop the mayor from signing and implementing a contract, Councilman Kevin Stinnett said.
Stinnett opposed the resolution because he said it doesn't give the council any additional power.
"Under state statute, the mayor can sign a collective bargaining agreement whether we vote it up or down," he said. "Until the state legislature changes the law, this resolution doesn't do anything for us."
The council has influence in the collective bargaining process already by setting the budget, Stinnett said, "which we did this year." The fiscal year 2012 general fund budget, which took effect July 1, stipulated a $5.6 million savings in the city's collective bargaining agreement with public safety.
"This gives the mayor a number to shoot for. By doing that, the mayor has to bargain to that number," Stinnett said.
Union officials, who opposed the move, said Tuesday afternoon that if the resolution was approved, they would discuss with their attorneys the possibility of challenging the council's decision.
Before the vote, Gray spoke vigorously in favor of the resolution. Sharing the agreement with the council, city employees and union members and explaining the issues "as we see them" is a positive step, he said.
Previously, the unions and representatives of Urban County Government appointed by mayors have hammered out agreements, which then were approved by the unions' members and signed by the mayor. The council was effectively cut out of the process, said council member Ed Lane, while union members retained the right to approve or deny a contract. Lane sponsored the resolution.
Union representatives say giving the council the right to reject contracts will lengthen the time it takes to negotiate and could lead to cuts in pay and benefits, returning public safety workers to the overworked and underpaid status that plagued them until collective bargaining was approved by the state legislature in 2004.
"We are the second-largest city in the state, the third-largest police department, and yet we were one of the lowest-paid agencies in the state ... prior to collective bargaining," said Mike Sweeney, president of Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4 in Lexington.
"That's why people would come to get the training here, then turn around and leave" for police departments in Jefferson County, which had collective bargaining, he said.
Sweeney also said there is no law preventing the mayor from putting a council member on the city's bargaining committee, but they would be subject to the same rules as the current team, including a "gag order" that would prevent them from discussing specifics of the negotiations until after they are complete.
Collective bargaining talks for new three-year contracts have started with corrections, fire and police unions, but agreements have not been reached. The costs of the contracts cover a range of personnel issues including salary, overtime, compensatory time, health insurance and training.
Lane said he was not asking for council members to be at the negotiating table: "We can't micromanage or nitpick it, but we should at least have a chance to discuss it with mayor's representatives and vote it up or down."
Sweeney said negotiations on the police contract, which expired in June, should have begun in February. City and union representatives met for the first time Monday. The corrections contracts have been pending even longer. The contracts expired in July 2010, but negotiations didn't begin until October, after the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city, Jones said. Negotiations are now stalled.
When the collective bargaining resolution first came up Tuesday, it failed 7-5 because of a malfunctioning elevator. Eight votes were required for passage. After the vote, council member Peggy Henson appeared in chambers and explained she had failed to vote because she was stuck in the elevator. The measure passed after council member Diane Lawless moved that the resolution be reconsidered.
In addition to Henson and Lane, Steve Kaye, Doug Martin, Jay McChord, George Myers, Julian Beard and Tom Blues voted for the resolution. Chuck Ellinger, Bill Farmer, Chris Ford, Lawless and Stinnett voted "no."
Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.