Portage mayor, city council clash over labor contract approval process
By John Robbins Post-Tribune correspondent June 19, 2012 11:54AM
Updated: June 20, 2012 11:14PM
PORTAGE — What honeymoon existed between the City Council and Mayor James Snyder is officially over. A major battle appears to be erupting between the two over city department labor contract negotiations.
Both sides say they feel betrayed with what has taken place.
The City Council approved an ordinance at its last meeting requiring council presence at negotiating sessions and formal council approval of contracts. Snyder intends to veto the ordinance.
The issue came to a head with a contract amendment recently concluded between Snyder and Portage Firefighters Local 3151. The contract was reopened when the city changed its health insurance provider.
Snyder says the switch will save the city $250,000 this year and nearly $500,000 next year. The city will now pick up the tab for firefighters’ health insurance premiums at an additional cost of $35,000.
That, according to council president Sue Lynch, “brought about a monetary change in their benefits package,” and so requires a vote by the council. Snyder does not dispute that but contends previous councils did not approve even one union contract.
The city Board of Works has already approved the contract changes.
Lynch thinks the issue is more complicated and extends beyond mere council approval of contracts. “We object strongly that the council is being excluded from the negotiations,” she said.
Lynch and fellow council member Matt Scheuer, Clerk-Treasurer Christopher Stidham and Snyder were involved in a Friday night negotiating session in late March with Local 3151. Apparently frustrated with how things were going, Snyder left.
Snyder and A.J. Monroe, director of Public Works, concluded negotiations the next day, Saturday, without council members or Stidham being present, and that has clearly annoyed Lynch.
“(Snyder) had different ideas about what the contract should be,” said Lynch. “He gets upset when we disagree with him.”
Snyder responded, “The council should be grateful, as they would not want what they agreed to without the mayor of Portage in the room to be publicized. What I learned from this experience was that politicians have no place in union negotiations, and I have learned from my mistakes.”
To keep politicians out of the negotiations, Snyder put Monroe in charge, “And he’s doing a heck of a job.”
“The council president and I shook hands on an agreement that we would agree on any negotiation before it went to ratification, and then she voted in a partisan fashion to be in the room,” Snyder said, “The council members can ask for updates at anytime.”
“I have a problem when people keep saying it’s a political vote. Maybe it’s the other party that’s playing politics,” said Lynch.
“We’re going to keep pushing him until he understands that we are the fiduciary body of the city,” she added. “He has to respect our role just as we respect his role.”
Snyder said he firmly believes that, as executive of the city, certain tasks are his and his alone, just as the council has a defined role in running the city. “Maybe some of the council members ran for the wrong job,” he said.