Police talks reach impasse

Firefighters continue negotiations 

By Greg Elias
Observer staff
August 7, 2008

The often contentious process of negotiating a new police contract has again resulted in a stalemate.

Williston Police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain confirmed Monday that talks have reached an impasse. A federal mediator will now be called in to help iron out differences.

Chamberlain, the union's alternate steward, said both sides have agreed not to publicly detail their dispute. He would say only that the impasse concerns pay and benefits.

“We agreed, at this stage at least, that in order to keep it civil this time we would not say anything more than that,” Chamberlain said.

Town Manager Rick McGuire and Burlington attorney Joseph McNeil are representing the town in the talks. Neither man was available for comment.

Thirteen Williston police officers and two dispatchers are represented by Teamsters Local 597. They, along with four full-time firefighters, are the town's only unionized employees.

Negotiations with police have frequently been contentious. Previous attempts to secure multi-year contracts have also resulted in stalemates.

In 2005, negotiations were declared at an impasse after just one month. One of the central issues was health insurance, as the town tried to get officers for the first time to pay a portion of their premiums, as had been done with other town employees. Police said they would agree only if pay was raised enough to cover the increased cost.

A mediator and a fact finder were employed to break the impasse.

The fact finder issued a report that concluded Williston officers were underpaid compared to others in Chittenden County. The report said pay increases totaling 6.5 percent for officers and 17 percent for sergeants would be needed to make Williston's compensation competitive with other area police departments.

Williston officers considered picketing before finally agreeing to a three-year contract in December 2005.

There have been other tensions, including a 2004 union grievance that alleged town management engaged in what amounted to a pattern of harassment.

The current talks started in April. This time, both Chamberlain and McGuire have said the negotiations were remarkably amiable.

“It really has gone so well this year, despite this impasse,” Chamberlain said.

The two sides declared the stalemate after their latest negotiating session on July 31, Chamberlain said. The existing three-year contract expired July 1, although a clause calls for the contract to remain in affect while a new agreement is being negotiated.

Meanwhile, talks continue with unionized Williston firefighters. Negotiations, which started in February, have so far focused exclusively on drafting language in the firefighters' first-ever contract, said Capt. Tim Gerry.

“We haven't done anything with pay and benefits yet,” Gerry said. He declined to provide more information on compensation and benefits he and his fellow firefighters are seeking.

Progress has been slowed this summer as negotiators work around vacations, Gerry said. A session scheduled for Wednesday marked the first time the two sides have met in more than a month.

The Williston Fire Department's four full-time firefighters were hired in 2006 to supplement a contingent of part-time, on-call personnel. The full-timers last year voted to join the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Full-time firefighters are currently paid from $17.72 to $21.04 an hour.

The pay scale for police runs from $18.04 to $27.64 an hour, depending on rank and years of service. Dispatchers are paid between $16.22 and $21.40 an hour.

Chamberlain said he did not know when police union and town representatives would meet with a mediator.