(April 19, 2019) A sharply divided Ocean City Council approved a new collective bargaining agreement with the resort’s career fighters’ union Monday night, following days of discussions that nevertheless ended with a 4-3 vote.
Also known as the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4269, the union’s agreement with the city is effective July 1 of this year through June 30, 2022.
Negotiations occurred over five days and apparently included Mayor Rick Meehan, councilmembers Mark Paddack, Matt James and Tony DeLuca, and City Solicitor Guy Ayers.
According to Budget Manager Jennie Knapp, the pay increases in the agreement total $728,687, with $137,485 coming in year one, $213,536 in year two and $377,666 during year three.
The agreement also sets an alignment of 12 and 24-hour shifts, which was a deal-breaker for some on the City Council.
According to the agreement, “Employees shall be assigned to a rotating schedule that repeats itself every four weeks comprised of 12-hour day and night shifts as well as 24-hour shifts which shall result in an annual average 45-hour week.”
Paddack quickly moved to approve the agreement and DeLuca offered a second, but the discussion did not end there.
Councilman Dennis Dare said he supported and held in high esteem Ocean City firefighters and emergency medical technicians, but added, “in all good conscience I cannot support emergency medical personnel working 24-hour shifts … and I won’t be voting for the motion.”
Councilwoman Mary Knight agreed.
“There is no data showing that any human being should work 24 hours in a row,” she said. “That’s the reason I will also not be voting for it.”
James said he would also not support the agreement, although for different reasons.
“I know that many fire departments across the country work 24-hour shifts,” he said. “They don’t work nonstop – it’s a response-based industry. It’s not like nurses or truck drivers, or airline pilots that used to work 24-hour shifts and are now not doing it anymore because of safety issues.
“Someone calls 911 and you get a well-trained and professional crew, no matter what schedule they work,” James added.
He said his opposition was because “this contract could’ve been negotiated for [a] significantly less dollar amount than what it is.”
Factoring in legal bills, James said, the actual financial impact to the city was in the neighborhood of $800,000.
“We probably could have gotten this done for $300,000 over a three-year contract, if we would have given them less steps [pay increases] and their schedule back,” James said, referring to the previous 24-on, 72-off rotation that was changed last year.
Councilman John Gehrig, who appeared to struggle with his vote, said the negotiations could have been done better.
“We have three council members not supporting it,” he said. “I just wonder if we should be negotiating this out front, right here.”
Gehrig pointed to the ballot measure voters approved 1,288 to 1,048 last year to allow personnel in the medical services division and the fire marshal’s office to have binding interest arbitration.
“Right now, the attorneys drive the conversation,” Gehrig said. “I don’t even know if we’re allowed to speak with our colleagues [doing the negotiations]. They’re our partners. We work together.
“It almost feels like we’re getting divorce,” he added. “Sometimes you just need to have a beer and a couple people start working it out.
“The fact that we’re split [on the vote] just goes to show ... no matter how it turns out today, that the negotiation process is broken,” he said.
Gehrig went on to say the public should be allowed to weigh in “and maybe that would lead to some consensus.”
“Four people on the council don’t know all the details or haven’t heard them specifically, and that’s why you have a split vote tonight.”
City Solicitor Guy Ayres said, if the collective bargaining agreement was not approved, the city wouldn’t know how to budget. He was unsure if negotiations could be reopened.
“If the standoff is the 24-hour shift, I don’t know what you’re going to bargain for,” Ayers said.
Paddack, a former police officer, said he had been part of the local Fraternal Order of Police bargaining talks about 15 years ago.
This time, according to Paddack, the City Council came up with a budget number before the negotiations began.
“It was decided on in closed session, behind closed doors,” he said. “And from that number, Matt James, Tony DeLuca, myself and the mayor sat down as the management side of this and said, the voters voted in November to allow our EMS fire guys to have collective bargaining with binding interest arbitration. And I support that. And you know why? Because the arbitration keeps the field even.”
James, however, said the number was not what the City Council agreed upon.
“That’s not how it should work,” James said. “We should be able to stay within our means and, if we can come in significantly lower and everybody’s happy or the majority of people are happy, I think we should strive for that.”
In James’ opinion, those negotiating the agreement “just threw (pay) steps at them, because we didn’t want to give them the (24-72) schedule back.”
He added, “With all the extra money, yeah, you can buy their schedule back from them again and I think that’s just what this contract negotiation process did this time.”
Paddack said previous relationships between the city and emergency responders arose during negotiations.
“I realized in the past, just how our city may have treated our fire EMS guys. And it really opened my eyes as to what was going on within the city,” he said, adding the new agreement did away with “the inequities that resulted from the previous council wiping out the 24-hour shifts.”
The final contract, according to Paddack, is both fair and equitable for firefighters and paramedics, and provides the resort with the protection it needs during peak hours.
“And I support that 100 percent,” he said.
Paddack accused Gehrig of attacking the process.
“Because the process sucks,” Gehrig said, adding that of the three councilmembers on the negotiating team, “even the three of you don’t agree.”
“It’s all BS ... the whole process is not real,” he continued. “Real people just sit across a table and talk to each other. You can’t even talk to each other without the attorneys having to speak for us,” he added.
DeLuca said he strongly supported the resolution.
“Both sides agreed to it,” he said. “What did it for me, more than anything, was that we had two fire chiefs on the negotiating team ... who I really, really respect. And both of them strongly support the schedule. As a matter of fact, one of them just about wrote the schedule.”
DeLuca said firefighters not present during the negotiations also support the agreement.
“It was done for me,” he said.
Dare, Knight and James voted against the agreement.