Police contract talks at stop-and-start stage

Picketing possible

By Greg Elias and Marianne Apfelbaum
Observer staff

Claiming Williston police officers are the lowest paid police force in Chittenden County, police union representatives are becoming more vocal in their frustration with town officials and the Selectboard.

“In what most would see as the richest town in the county, we are the lowest paid police department,” said Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, who is a member of the bargaining committee working to negotiate a new contract with the town.

After just two meetings with a mediator, contract talks between the town and the police union reached a standstill after the August 9 session. Then they inched forward again.

Town Manager Rick McGuire, who two weeks ago stated the talks were again at an impasse and would enter the fact-finding phase, said Friday that the mediator has been asked to return to the bargaining table after all.

There is some question as to which side requested the return. McGuire said he thought the police union had called for the resumption of mediation.

Williston Police Sergeant Bart Chamberlain said that it was the town that asked the mediator to come back. Speaking as an alternate steward of the union representing the officers, Chamberlain said negotiations were still so far apart after the last meeting that they “told the mediator to pack his bags.”

Pay and health care benefits are the big issues in the contract talks according to Chamberlain.

The Selectboard earlier this year talked about having all town employees pay for a portion of their health care insurance. Both police officers and other non-unionized town employees currently receive free health care insurance.
Some board members felt that if the town asked non-union employees to pay part of their health care premiums — and the unionized employees were not — the non-union workers might seek union representation.

Chamberlain said politics are to blame. “The Selectboard is more interested in getting re-elected and keeping the tax rate low than they are in treating employees fairly,” he said.

Chamberlain also said officers would consider paying as much as ten percent of their health care premiums as long as they received pay hikes that keep salaries competitive with other Chittenden County police departments. While starting salaries appear to be in the same range as other departments, “Once you hit the 3-year mark, Williston officers are the lowest paid of any police department in Chittenden County,” he said. According to Chamberlain, Williston police also handle about twice as many calls per officer as other local departments. “We have a heavier workload and are making less money,” he said.

Chamberlain sees the town’s seeming unwillingness to raise salaries for its officers as more costly to taxpayers in the long run. “Pay is one of the main reasons we’re losing people. We’ve become a training facility. The town is spending tens of thousands of dollars on training, and it makes the officers look very attractive to other departments. The town is being shortsighted,” he said.

Currently, the Williston police department is advertising statewide to hire three officers. Police Chief Ozzie Glidden has also tried to find help through more unconventional means such as calling state Senators, the American Legion and the Vermont National Guard so see if there are soldiers returning from Iraq who might be interested. “We have three openings right now, and there’s nobody trying to come here for a job. People should be forming a line to apply here. Instead they’re forming a line to get out,” said Chamberlain.

The Williston Police Officers Association represents police officers, sergeants and dispatchers. The union is a chapter of Teamsters Local 597. Attorney Tony Lamb, as well as Glidden and the town manager are representing the town in negotiations. The union is being represented by officers John Marcoux, Duane Messier and Chamberlain. Jim Magnusson of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is acting as mediator.

Tension between the police union and town management has surfaced on several occasions in years past. Last year, union members stated publicly that management had engaged in a “pattern of harassment.” The officers filed a grievance listing instances they claimed were attempts to withhold union members’ rights.

Before the talks broke off earlier this month, McGuire said “a little bit of progress” was made during the talks involving the mediator. But then the negotiations reached an impasse, and McGuire said both sides wanted to hire a fact finder.

Chamberlain said a representative for the town called back the mediator because of fear the situation will go to the fact finding stage. “We’ve done our homework and they’re afraid because they have no defense,” he said. “We’re so underpaid right now they look at an approximately twenty percent raise and are saying it’s too much. We look at it as a wage adjustment.”

McGuire countered that the problems of maintaining the police force are “related to a whole series of issues. Pay is one of them. Pay is being negotiated.”

If talks reach the fact-finding stage, the union is permitted to conduct “informational picketing,” while waiting for the fact-finding report, something Chamberlain says the town wants to avoid. While the officers are not allowed to strike, off duty union members can carry signs, answer questions and hand out pamphlets. “We’d be in front of Town Hall, at Taft Corners and other high traffic areas,” said Chamberlain. “Most residents support us and have no idea we’re the lowest paid department in the county.”

McGuire expressed concern that police officers might choose to picket. “This is the first that I’ve heard of picketing as a possibility. The purpose of fact finding is to flesh out details and look at the comparisons, not to push your agenda in the press.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Chamberlain said the mediation session is set for August 30. “We’re keeping an open mind,” he said. We agreed to give them one more shot.”