Decision delayed on firefighters

Closed-door meeting concludes without vote

March 12, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

A yearlong effort to negotiate the first-ever contract with Williston firefighters stalled Monday night when the Selectboard delayed action on a tentative agreement.

The board convened behind closed doors for about 20 minutes at the end of Monday’s meeting. When it was over, members immediately departed without further public discussion or a vote.

Town Manager Rick McGuire would only say the board did not act on the proposed agreement. He declined comment on why there was no vote.

Capt. Tim Gerry said he and the other firefighters voted on Monday to accept a tentative agreement. Interviewed on Tuesday, he seemed resigned to negotiations taking a while longer.

“The whole thing has been a process,” he said. “We’ll just figure out where to go from here.”

The agreement would cover Williston’s four full-time firefighters, who voted to unionize in November 2007 and have since been working without a contract.

Neither side would comment on the tentative contract’s specifics. Gerry did say that the proposed agreement included pay and benefits that are “pretty similar” to what firefighters currently receive. They are now paid between $17.72 and $21.04 an hour.

Closed-door meetings, formally referred to as executive sessions, are permitted under Vermont law when a contract is being discussed and “premature general public knowledge would clearly place the state, municipality, other public body, or person involved at a substantial disadvantage.”

The Observer reporter covering the meeting objected to the closed session, reasoning that because firefighters had already voted on the agreement, public discussion of the contract would not put the town at a disadvantage in negotiations.

But McGuire said he had not been informed that firefighters had voted on the contract, and the board elected to hold the discussion in private.

Gerry confirmed that firefighters had not told McGuire about their vote before Monday’s meeting. Gerry said the verbal vote was done to ensure all four firefighters agreed with the proposed contract.

The unionized firefighters comprise only a fraction of the personnel in the Williston Fire Department. The department also uses dozens of on-call firefighters, who are paid about $10 an hour. Police officers and dispatchers are the only other town employees who belong to a union.

McGuire said he expected to schedule another negotiating session with firefighters soon. He said it was impossible to know when the Selectboard would again discuss the contract.