It’s a red flag when union contract issues are debated at length by elected officials in a public meeting, reflecting badly on the negotiations to that point. But the Sedgwick County Commission’s handling of a new contract with the firefighters’ union Wednesday was troubling for several reasons.
Acting as the governing body of the Sedgwick County Fire District, which serves unincorporated areas and smaller cities, the commissioners ultimately voted 4-1 to approve the two-year contract. That at least broke the unproductive impasse, and in a way that allowed commissioners to say they were addressing the district’s budget problems.
But it seemed like poor form to allow so little time for union consideration of the final version of the contract – just a 15-minute recess during the meeting – and to proceed to the vote despite union officials’ unequivocal statements that the county was violating the law and would face legal action.
If the compensation specifics are best understood by the parties, the contract’s provisions on use of part-time and volunteer firefighters surely merited more community discussion.
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Then there was the tone of the meeting.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau lit into union president Dave Thompson, calling into question union leaders’ honesty, loyalty to the district and good faith as negotiators.
Commission Chairman Jim Howell got in two political digs inappropriate for the time and place: He pressed speaker Marcey Gregory, the mayor of Goddard, to offer a plan on the spot for how she would pay firefighters more. Not coincidentally, Gregory plans an independent challenge to Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, a Howell ally, in the fall election.
Then Howell and Ranzau variously criticized Commissioner Tim Norton for his comments in favor of taking more time to work through the dispute and his proposal of a substitute motion, characterizing Norton’s timing and motivation as political. Howell said: “He’s not really been an active participant in the discussions in our executive sessions regarding these issues.”
Both Howell and Ranzau support Republican state Sen. Michael O’Donnell’s bid to unseat Norton, the only Democrat on the commission. It was hard to remember another County Commission meeting when re-election politics was as obvious on the bench.
And if Howell and other commissioners are right that the fire district needs a long-term fiscal solution, it was disappointing to see the move toward that come at the expense of labor relations, civility and collegiality.