Thursday, September 25, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: In Charge: Union claims Fred Meurer holds Monterey''s reins too tightly.
Negotiations between the union representing the city of Monterey''s carpenters, craftsmen, custodians and clerks stalled in August. At the top of the list of gripes, which were presented to the City Council on Sept. 16, was a demand to change the way disciplinary disputes are handled.
Under the arrangement the city uses now, employees are disciplined by supervisors. Those measures can be appealed to the city manager and if the employee is terminated, he or she can appeal to the city council. After that, the matter can end up in court.
Tim McCormick, an organizer from the Laborers'' International Union of North America (LIUNA), which represents the General Employees of Monterey (GEM), presented the city council with a petition last week signed by 80 employees demanding "third-party" or independent review of personnel discipline issues.
Some 274 city employees represented by the union have been without a contract since June. The union says their concern first and foremost remains the lack of a third-party mediator.
McCormick lays much of the blame on City Manager Fred Meurer, complaining that Meurer''s office holds "unilateral" power over city business.
McCormick finds fault with the authority afforded Meurer, a retired Army colonel. The city is known to run efficiently under Meurer, but, in the union''s mind, it is undemocratic.
"Monterey is quite unique in this," McCormick says. "With this military background it has developed into a pseudo-monarchy. I''ve been in this [field] for 30 years and I''ve never seen anything like this.
"There''s no accountability whatsoever," McCormick says. "Every time they do something severe enough, we have to blow ten grand to go to court."
Asked to respond to the charge, Meurer is taken aback.
"If they want to debate how decisions are made I can absolutely assure you that decisions are made by the City Council of Monterey," he says, adding that the council takes its responsibility to the public "very seriously."
The two levels of appeal--to immediate supervisors and to the city council--are more than some other local municipalities offer their workers. In Seaside and in Carmel-by-the-Sea, there is no city council appeal option. All personnel matters begin and end with the city manager.
In Pacific Grove, an employee can appeal to a personnel hearing board made up of citizens appointed by the city council. Their report is given to the city manager who makes the final decision.
According to the Monterey city attorney''s office, only four city personnel matters have gone to court in the last 20 years. Two were ruled in favor of the employees. One was concluded confidentially, but without a settlement payment from the city, and one case is pending.
Meurer says he''s handled scores of discipline matters, some of which are very clear. He noted one recent case of an employee who was allegedly found to be intoxicated on the job, with a city vehicle outside the city. Meurer says he felt that firing was "completely justified."
"I know that when I''m in the role of judge, as I have been before in the Army with courts martial, I have an absolute loyalty to what''s right and fair as best as I can discern it," he says. "I''m making a decision to try to help [the employee] in the future not to try to punish them for doing some boneheaded thing."
He states flatly that the city doesn''t need a mediator.
"The accountability rests with the city, not with somebody who comes in, makes a decision and then leaves town."
But in one of the cases that went against the city, its handling of a terminated employee took harsh criticism.
The October 2001 decision in Woessner v. City of Monterey, signed by Superior Judge Robert O''Farrell, says the employee "was not provided a fair hearing by the city council, that Woessner''s due process rights were violated...and that the city council did not meet the Constitutional requirements for a relatively fair hearing board under the circumstances of this case."
McCormick says this case is central to his union''s demands.
"Our official on-the-table position is we''d settle the contract with mediation," he says. "We''ve been all around the horn with it. We''ve taken it to the council, we''ve petitioned them individually, we''ve petitioned them publicly. Nothing has happened."
With the negotiations in mediation and the main sticking point not one involving money, McCormick says a city worker strike is a long shot. But the negotiations have the added tension of the possibility for staff layoffs next year. Monterey and other cities have had to cut back services because of general economic weakness and state budget problems. More than 50 positions across the city workforce have been identified for possible removal.
Community outreach coordinator Krista Lemos says the city negotiated the current personnel rules with each of the labor units representing city employees. In 2000, the GEM agreed to the arrangement it now wants to change. (GEM later became affiliated with LIUNA.)
Lemos says the city opposes third party mediation for a number of reasons. For one, the city management feels that the agreed-upon system works well for all the parties and in fact serves well as a management tool. Under the current system the decision also remains local.
"It adheres to the city charter which designates the city manager as the authority for hiring and firing city employees," she says.
The city and the union have been in negotiation since early August. Another round of mediations has been scheduled. "It''s been difficult," she says.