The Urban County Council should not claim the right to approve collective bargaining contracts with city workers, council members voted in a special committee meeting Tuesday.
Councilman Doug Martin made a motion at a special session of the Public Safety & Public Works Committee "for a resolution that the council's approval should be obtained" before the mayor signs collective bargaining contracts with the city's fire, police and jail unions.
The council took an interest in the contracts last month, when fire department officials partly blamed collective bargaining for excessive overruns in overtime spending for firefighters.
The city's public safety contracts are up for renegotiation, and Martin said he hoped to pass the motion before negotiations began.
However, council members voted down Martin's motion 4-2, saying it conflicted with a state law that says the mayor is the only city official who can sign collective bargaining agreements.
"We have a KRS statute that dictates collective bargaining," said council member KC Crosbie. "KRS statute ... does supersede our local government ordinances."
The statute does not say what role, if any, a city council can play in the process, and it does not specifically bar a council from reviewing a contract before the mayor signs it.
City attorney Ed Gardner told the council that other cities, including Louisville, allow council members to approve union contracts. If they don't approve them, they send the mayor back to the negotiating table, he said.
Lexington's Urban County Council is not represented at negotiations, which are closed to the public.
Martin and council member Ed Lane told the council that the public safety sector costs the city more than $150 million a year, which is more than half the city's proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year. Collective bargaining contracts outline much of how that money is spent in terms of minimum salaries, paid time off and promotions.
Martin questioned whether one person should be trusted to handle the large expenditure.
"I think it's an extraordinary pressure on a single individual, like a mayor, to have to sign a multihundred-million-dollar contract when the public at large isn't participating and when the council doesn't get to participate," Martin said.
He said it would be "extraordinarily easy" for a mayor to cut deals with public safety workers for political support. The city's public safety unions supported Gray in the last election.
"If there's a problem with (the contracts), the council has additional political will to try to get the best deal that they can for their taxpayers," Martin said.
Before the council voted, a representative for Gray said the mayor planned to seek council's approval before signing off on the contracts, whether or not council chose to pass the motion.
Gray has said he plans to save $5.6 million in police, fire and corrections collective bargaining contracts to help close an expected $27 million deficit in the city's budget for the 2012 fiscal year.
Mike Sweeney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4 in Lexington, said he was pleased the council voted not to get involved with contract negotiations.
A similar motion was voted down in 2008 after the council decided the law needed to be changed at the state level.
"They had three years to meet with the legislature, and they didn't," Sweeney said. "Here we are three years later, having the same discussion."
Negotiations for the corrections workers' union contract began recently, but stalled. Contracts for the police and fire unions "will commence soon," said Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason.
The city has hired a consultant to help with the negotiations.