Despite negotiations between the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District and its two employees' unions not being on the agenda of the meeting of the board last week, commissioners at the last minute before adjourning gave Chief Donald Adams the authority to extend the employees' current contract while negotiations are expected to continue for a new contract.
Two weeks ago, the district's attorney and representatives declared an impasse on contract talks.
The fiscal year began Oct. 1 and without a settlement on hand, the employees contract would revert back to what employees were making prior to 2009 when they agreed to $1.6 million in concessions.
At the meeting held Sept. 25, Walt Stevens, president of the IAFF, Local 1826, passed out a letter addressed to the commissioners. In it, Stevens wrote that what was becoming "an all too familiar refrain, Local 1826 once again wishes to identify for you the various concessions it and its members have made to the district over the course of the last four or more years."
While the members of the board made no reference to the letter during the meeting, Stevens jumped from his seat seconds before adjournment to ask the board members if they were going to accept the union's contract by Oct. 1 or "give them your money."
Items for discussion by the board are always put on an agenda so the public knows what is to be discussed and so the public can make comments during two discussion periods.
Stevens' letter was not on the agenda and board members had not been given the letter before the meeting.
The debate between Stevens and board members became heated at times while Stevens continued to ask the board to make a decision before the fiscal Oct. 1 date began.
"I'm here trying to save you money," Stevens shouted to the board. "I have never had such difficulty giving money back (to the district).
The verbal exchange prompted Board Chairman Jeff Berndt to suggest the panel go into an executive session. But the district's attorney, Richard Pringle, said it was unusual for a walk-on to be considered when it was not listed on the agenda, but that as far as he knew, the board could deal with Stevens' requests.
After a back and forth exchange of words, the board finally voted three to one to give the chief the authority to continue the employees' current contract until negotiations continue.
Three commissioners Larry Becker, Jeff Berndt, and Linda Carter voted in favor to allow the chief to step in and continue the contract. But Commissioner David Adams voted no and showed his disgust with the matter by saying that because the item was not on the agenda, that the public couldn't react.
"No, I am against this," Adams said.
Carter said she voted yes "with reservations" and Commissioner Adams, still upset over the surprised walk-on item being considered, said "we're cutting the community out who may want to say something."
In his two-page letter, labor spokesman Walt Stevens wrote that he as a representative of the employees are now being asked to make additional sacrifices which Local 1826 believes are unfair and inequitable.
"While we have attempted to communicate our concerns regarding the district's most recent round of cuts to your representatives at the bargaining table, our questions remain unanswered and our concerns unaddressed, Stevens wrote.
"At the last negotiation session, we raised questions regarding the calculation of the proposed budget for FY 2013 and the necessity of the cuts, particularly the depth of the cuts, proposed by the district. Your representatives at the bargaining table, a negotiation team led by Nikhil Joshi, were unable to answer the questions we posed. We then asked to be able to meet with the finance director away from the bargaining table in order to have our questions regarding the budget answered and to allow us to formulate an appropriate response to the district's proposals. That request was granted and we intended to follow through with the meeting," Stevens wrote.
But he said before the meeting with the finance director could be set, the district by letter and without any phone call or personal notification of any kind, 'notified us' that it was declaring an impasse. This declaration was issued five days after we met at the table and were granted permission to meet with the finance director.
"This behavior by your representatives should be unacceptable to you as commissioners," Stevens said.
When the 3-1 vote was secured, those in the audience cheered. The crowd was made up of firefighters and their families. The meeting room was full at capacity. The letter is public record and can be obtain at the fire district's offices at 636 Thomas Sherwin Avenue South in Lehigh.
Stevens even questioned why the district was spending big money with a lawyer when both sides should be able to sit down and negotiate.
Ralph Hemingway, who has served on the fire board in years past, was in the audience and he stood up and said that union and district negotiations were done at the table face to face without a lawyer.
"That's the way we did it for years," he said.
In a special meeting held an hour before the regular meeting, the board voted to keep the average rate at 3.0 mills and also voted for the new budget of close to $24 million. The millage rate had to be passed at 5:01 p.m. The regular meeting began at 6 p.m.