The personnel director will serve as an adviser, not a participant in negotiations.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County commissioners will no longer send a representative to the bargaining table for negotiations with unions from other county offices.
They want to avoid repeating the still-unresolved controversy over whether union workers at the county engineer's office should have received pay raises without commissioners' approval.
"We're not going to make the same mistake twice," said Gary Kubic, county administrator.
Engineer Richard Marsico negotiated a tentative agreement on wages and benefits with Teamsters Local 377 a year ago, but the final contract was not finished until this year. It was held up because of a dispute over other issues.
Even though the final contract hadn't yet been voted on by commissioners, as is required by Ohio law, Marsico sent paperwork to the auditor's office authorizing the raises of $1 an hour last year. He said the county's human resources director participated in negotiations and signed off on the tentative agreement, which was good enough to put the raises into effect.
Teamsters began receiving the raises last year, and got a 65-cent hourly raise this year.
Commissioners rejected the contract last month because it does not include a 10 percent employee contribution for health insurance. They also said the raises are too high and should not have gone into effect without their approval.
The union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against commissioners with the State Employment Relations Board, arguing that they made copayment an issue only after the wage and benefit portion of their contract had already been resolved. The complaint is pending before SERB.
Commissioners are still waiting for a legal opinion from the prosecutor's office on whether they can rescind the raises.
Because of the situation with the engineer's office, human resources director Connie Pierce will no longer sit at the bargaining table with other elected officials. She will be available to offer advice to them, but they'll have to submit their requests in writing, which is how they'll get a response.
He said negotiating contracts was part of Pierce's job when she was hired last year.
"But the rules of engagement have changed," Kubic said. "We will still participate in negotiations, but we will do it more efficiently and in a way that clarifies the roles of our office."
Prosecutor Paul Gains said commissioners aren't required by law to have a delegate at the bargaining table, though he thinks it's in their best interest to do so.
"I think this may be a knee-jerk reaction," he said of commissioners' decision. "How are the elected officials supposed to know what they're able to offer?"
Kubic said Pierce can discuss contract parameters with elected officials, just not at the bargaining table.
Don't like it
The new policy doesn't sit well with Sheriff Randall Wellington or Clerk of Courts Anthony Vivo, who have contract talks pending with their employees.
Wellington said when the Fraternal Order of Police found out that Pierce would no longer be at the table, its bargaining unit walked away from negotiations, declared an impasse and threatened to file an unfair labor practice complaint.
"I don't understand why they're doing this," Wellington said. "What are we supposed to do, stop and write a letter every time there's a question that comes up during negotiations?"
He said the new rules will make contract talks more confusing and time-consuming.
Vivo, likewise, said removing Pierce from the equation is a bad move.
"Why should we waste our time negotiating and then go to the commissioners to make sure everything is OK?" Vivo said. "That just seems like a waste of time."
He said Pierce, or someone from the commissioners' office, should be present to act as a liaison, daily keeping commissioners abreast of developments at the bargaining table.
Vivo said commissioners already caused a problem with his union by rejecting a contract earlier this year because it didn't contain the 10 percent copayment.
Commissioners told county officials that they'll require the copayment in all union contracts, but Vivo, like Marsico, said he had negotiated his agreement long before that edict came down.
He said the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents his staff, has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against him and commissioners over the issue.
"They changed the rules of the game for us after the game was already over," Vivo said. "Now we're in a real mess."