The SERB director said neither side is bound by a tentative agreement.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County Engineer Richard Marsico should not have granted raises to his union employees without having county commissioners' signatures on a contract, a state official said.
"There was no agreement in place," said J. Russell Keith, acting executive director of the State Employment Relations Board. "I don't know that there was ever a valid contract since the [commissioners] had never agreed to it."
The Vindicator reported Thursday that Marsico authorized raises of $1 an hour for Teamsters Local 377 employees in May 2002, despite the fact that commissioners hadn't signed a new contract in which the increases were proposed.
The union got an additional 65-cent hourly increase Jan. 1, 2003, said Robert Bernat, Teamsters business agent. That raise also had been recommended in a proposed contract, but was not approved by commissioners.
The union represents 79 laborers, truck drivers, mechanics and heavy equipment operators at the engineer's office. Their contract expired April 31, 2002, but was extended by mutual agreement while contract talks continued toward a new three-year deal.
Marsico said the wage issue was negotiated and agreed upon by all parties, including the county's human resources director, in April 2002. The full contract wasn't ratified by the union, though, until January 2003 because of a dispute over posting of job vacancies in the department.
Marsico, believing that the tentative agreement on wages was good enough, ordered the raises into effect. He sent a letter to the county auditor's office authorizing the raises. Marilyn Kenner, chief deputy engineer, said the letter indicated that commissioners had not yet approved the contract.
Keith said Marsico should have waited until the entire contract was approved to have begun the raises. A tentative agreement can always fall through, he said.
"The name is what it is. It's a tentative agreement," Keith said. "There is no duty there to honor it."
Keith said he's never heard of a public official commencing terms of a contract before getting final approval by its legislative authority.
Prosecutor Paul Gains said there does not appear to be any personal liability for Marsico or anyone else.
"The only time you have personal liability is when you have an act of bad faith," Gains said. "A mistake of law is not bad faith."
"It could have been an error, but it was an egregious error," said county Administrator Gary Kubic.
He said the auditor's office should have verified that a contract was in place before paying the higher wages.
But Auditor George Tablack said the signed documents from Marsico were all his office needs to begin processing the raises, since Marsico is the appointing authority.
He said Ohio law gives the engineer authority to set his employees' pay, as long as he stays within the money budgeted to him by commissioners.
"If Kubic doesn't think Mr. Marsico acted properly, then he should sue him," Tablack said.
Gains said it appears the county is still on the hook for the raises, even though commissioners rejected the contract by a 2-1 vote Thursday. Commissioners Ed Reese and Vicki Allen Sherlock voted against the pact, and Commissioner David Ludt voted for it.
"It appears that the raises are ratified by virtue of the fact that nobody told Tablack not to pay them," Gains said.
He cited case law rooted in another Mahoning County case from 1991, involving the sheriff's office.
Reese said he voted against the pact because there's too much confusion over whether the board was bound by the tentative agreement on wage issues.
He and Sherlock also wanted the deal to include a 10-percent employee contribution toward health insurance premiums, even though that was not part of the agreement reached in April 2002.
Bernat said the union won't accept a copayment and won't tolerate any changes in the contract that was agreed upon.
"We are not going back to the bargaining table," Bernat said. "We're done bargaining. We're finished."
He said if commissioners try to force copayment on the union, or try to take back the raises, the Teamsters will go to court to block the actions.
Marsico said he's disappointed that the contract was rejected, but he plans to continue paying his employees the higher wages anyway.
"I believe we had an agreement," he said. "Until someone tells me otherwise, we will continue operating under those terms."