ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
(Oct. 19, 2012) The debate over the city treatment of employee benefits and the desire for collective bargaining keeps going and going, as Monday night’s City Council meeting saw Councilwoman Margaret Pillas left to defend the council’s actions against union backers.
City Parks and Recreation employee and union activist Greg DeMarco approached the council to “set the record straight” on what he said was the suggestion by Councilman Brent Ashley’s recent newspaper ads that unionized employees would be demanding more benefits.
“I think we have very good benefits for the town of Ocean City,” DeMarco said. “This union movement never came in here asking for more benefits. We only said we wanted to keep our benefits and preserve them, because they were under attack.”
DeMarco also objected to what he said had been Pillas’ inference that the managerial skills of former City Manager Dennis Dare had played a role in any alleged employee dissatisfaction.
“It was told to me that it was a problem with Dennis Dare,” Pillas countered, in reference to her conversations with employees some time ago. “I said, ‘Did you go to the city manager?’” And they said, ‘Yes, and that’s the problem.’ That the problem had started back in 2005, and that it was not given enough weight.”
DeMarco said that had not been his experience or that of anyone he knew, but that he was not the sole authority on the matter.
“This started months and months before I ever got involved with it,” DeMarco said. “Overall, the driving force in this movement has been this majority … I don’t speak for every employee, but I speak for an overwhelming majority of them.”
Pillas noted, however – as she has before – that the benefits of current employees had never been threatened.
“All the initiatives that we brought forward were for new hires,” Pillas said.
“That’s not true,” DeMarco replied.
When the 11 ordinances that changed employee policy were brought forth at the Jan. 3, 2011 council meeting, it was clear at that time that the changes would only affect new hires. But some of those who opposed the council’s current majority have claimed that the original idea was otherwise.
“Originally, when all those ordinances were thrown out there, I don’t believe that they discriminated between current employees and future employees,” said former Council President Joe Mitrecic in a recent interview, published in full in this week’s paper. “I think the words were just ‘employees.’ Whether it was meant to be that way or not, I can’t say.”
In reference to any cuts to current employees, Pillas told DeMarco “that motion was brought forward by management.”
In one of the most contested moves of the current council, a pair of ordinances closing both the city’s pension plan and retiree health plan to new hires were repeatedly vetoed by Mayor Rick Meehan, who negotiated an alternative health proposal that saw the retiree coverage kept open, but a three percent annual increase cap applied to the city’s contribution for all employees, current and future.
Monday’s meeting also saw the return of James Moxley, a city employee who was one of the first to call for a union. Moxley also objected to the “scare tactics” being used in newspaper advertisements regarding benefit costs. He compared the relative value of the city’s personnel costs to that of its considerable capital improvement projects.
“It seems to me that the city has great wealth and we are spending that wealth,” Moxley said. “We are right now running a great deal of projects, and taking bids on a great deal of projects, and these things cost major amounts of money.
“Everybody out there who thinks that somebody wants more benefits or pay – it’s a fraction of what we’re putting out right now [in terms of capital bids] … if any of the members of this council count themselves as conservative spenders, I don’t think they know what a conservative spender is. And that goes for all the council.”
Moxley also objected to Pillas’ suggestion that part of the general employees’ impetus to unionize was competition with the public safety, given the strong presence of the Fraternal Order of Police.
“We were talking about different approaches that were made between general employees, not public safety,” Moxley said. “We were talking about rules being judged lenient on certain divisions, and more strict on certain divisions.”
“But Mr. Moxley, that doesn’t’ have anything to do with your council. We’re here for accountability to the taxpayers,” Pillas said. “It’s your city manager that’s in control of that … your fair treatment has to come from your city manager. If there were departments that were being given things that other departments were not, that has to do with the city manager.”
Moxley later clarified – outside of the meeting – that while a desire for employee equality included public safety, he resented the current union pushed being played against the FOP.
“We would like to compare ourselves, but not pit ourselves, against them,” Moxley said. He said he and many of his colleagues consider their work “as, if not more, dangerous than being a police officer.”
The core issue, Moxley said, was that “certain groups of employees get away with certain things.”
“There’s an ‘old boys’ club’ feel, a wink and a nod and who you know,” he said. “That is still happening and that’s really what we’re talking about. But she [Pillas] took that and wrapped in into the dissatisfaction with the job that Dennis Dare was doing.”
“Any employee that you ask is going to tell you that they liked Dennis Dare,” Moxley said, although he cautioned that this was not necessarily an endorsement of Dare’s larger policy, as it has often been played. “I have a few instances where there were differences with him,” Moxley said. “I thought he should’ve seen this bubble coming with the real estate, that it wasn’t going to last forever.”
But, Moxley continued, “it [the desire for collective bargaining] started a long, long, long time before Dennis Dare. A lot of people tried to pin it on Dennis being ousted. That took us by surprise, obviously, but we’d been galvanized [on the issue] for a long time.”
He also objected to general sense that city officials were still using the union issue as a political tool, even though they had chosen to wipe their hands of it by passing it to the voters. “If they don’t want to make a controversial decision, they throw it back on the voters,” he said.