WESTFIELD – The City Council voted to send signed and ratified salary increases, among them $389 for part-time crossing guards, back to the Finance sub-committee which had recommended them for a first reading and vote at Thursday’s meeting.
Finance sub-committee chair Brent B. Bean, II made a motion to approve the first of six salary increase orders for the crossing guards. All six were transfers from the Reserve for Future Salary account which Mayor Brian P. Sullivan had included as a budget item to cover potential salary increases from contracts that had not been ratified by the end of the fiscal year.
The other five were for the fire, police, assessor, auditor, and building departments. A seventh item recommended for approval was a transfer of $10,000 from the Reserve for Unforeseen account for the Technology Center, part-time hourly account.
At-large Councilor Andrew K. Surprise raised the issue of severance in the contracts, saying that there was a huge disparity between city employees and school employees in severance pay. He said that the majority of the severance for city employees was for sick time.
“Sick time is not meant as a bonus,” he said, adding, “School employees’ severance is much, much lower.”
Council President Ralph J. Figy said the school department had negotiated severance out of employees’ contracts over the last three years. He also said negotiating contracts is not the job of the City Council.
“Yes, we’re here to approve or reject the contracts,” said At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty. He added that any item in the contracts could be discussed. He also said his objection was financial.
Flaherty said at the Sept. 19 Council meeting when the contracts were sent for review to Finance, he had asked for legal opinions on whether all contracts can be voted up and down by the City Council, and if not, where in the charter does it give the mayor the right to execute contracts. He said he had not received a response from the Law Department.
Flaherty also referred to a case in the city of Methuen adjudicated by the Inspector General which had found that the mayor did not have the power to execute city contracts without city council approval; and had found both the mayor and city council in Methuen had not done their due diligence, and had acted with a “reckless disregard to safeguard taxpayer funds.”
Flaherty then made a motion to table all of the contracts until the second week in January after the new mayor is in office.
“I think it’s a critical, critical thing. If we sign these things today, we are tying their hands,” he said. The motion to table the vote until January failed.
Bean then brought forward his original motion to approve the $389 increase for the crossing guards.
At-large Councilor Matthew Emmershy objected, saying the city payroll had increased in three years by 17.1 percent. Bean countered that the increases also represent new employees, and increases in benefit costs.
“I support the crossing guards one hundred percent, our children need them. I support the Police Department. I support the Fire Department. We’re very responsible here. I don’t like you saying we’re acting in a reckless way,” said At-large Councilor Cindy C. Harris, who also chairs the Personnel Action committee. She said the city is financially sound.
“We have not read these contracts. I don’t know how we can vote for anything without reading it,” said Surprise.
Bean suggested going easy on the rhetoric. “Everybody deserves what they got. Everybody else has sought after our services,” he said, adding that if the city council started approving more businesses in town, rather than not approving, the taxpayers would benefit.
“We shouldn’t just rubber stamp these things to appease employees,” Flaherty said, adding that with regard to bringing in new businesses, it did very little to improve taxes. “All these things added together did not decrease our levy ceiling.”
“We can’t even grow our way out of this mess. We’re taxing people beyond what they can afford,” said At-large Councilor Dan Allie.
Flaherty repeated his objection to voting on the items from the Finance committee, saying they were put in as orders and should be sent to the Legislative & Ordinance committee. “We don’t have any obligation to vote on an order on the night you receive it,” he said. The orders, which require two votes, rather than the one vote for appropriations, came in to the shared drive before the Council meeting, although they previously had been sent to the Finance committee.
Bean said the Finance committee does orders, also.
Figy, who asked for some guidance, said he had to go along with the City Charter, and refer the items back to committee.
Ward 1 Councilor Mary Ann Babinski suggested that in order to expedite the voting, to put all of the items together, do a first reading, and give the councilors the time to read the orders before the next meeting.
At-large Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli, Jr. asked someone to clarify the expediency of the vote.
“As a former municipal employee, this is retroactive to July 1,” Figy, a retired school counselor from another district, said. He said on the employees’ side, getting the increases in a lump sum means more taxes are taken out. “On the employees’ side of this, it doesn’t do them any good.”
“There is also something about bargaining in good faith,” Figy said.
A motion was made to send the items back to the Finance committee, and to be put on the Council agenda for a first reading on Nov. 7.
“Nothing is going to change,” Bean said.
After the meeting, Bean said councilors were using parliamentary procedures and tactics to impede process, not just on finance, but on businesses coming to town, road reconstruction, and water filtration. “Every issue that comes up,” he said.
“Our number one purpose is gathering information and voting. Councilors need to understand that they’re not lawyers, engineers and scientists. We pay a lot of money for people who are experts in those fields to give us correct information,” Bean said. “The total disrespect and devaluing of city employees needs to stop, teachers included.”
Mayor Brian P. Sullivan agreed.
“First and foremost, I sympathize with city employees and their families who are being treated as if their work and dedication to the city is a political chess piece,” he said.
Sullivan said all of the financial orders that are in front of the Council are already in the budget.
“The money was already there. They cut certain pieces of union contracts. The orders are for financial transfers to the contracts,” he said, adding that he knew what the numbers were before he signed the contracts, and he questioned whether the councilors really did their jobs back in June in setting the budget.
“The unions and administration negotiated in good faith. What I sent to the Council to be ratified, I stand behind 100%. I’m not asking for any additional money; it’s already there,” he said. “The CEO has the authority to sign the contract. The City Council can vote it up or down, but they don’t have the power to negotiate. That’s their role. None of them would stand there and vote no.”