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Source: Kokomo Tribune

City, fire union to continue negotiations despite filing of court appeals

By George Myers
    
The next negotiation session between city officials and the Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396 has been scheduled.

And while the two sides are unlikely to leave the meeting with a new contract, their spouses can at least band together in frustration at some dubious scheduling efforts.

The warring parties will next meet Wednesday, Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, to continue what has become a fierce public battle in the effort to reach a collective bargaining agreement.

A letter sent in mid-January by lawyer Donald Thompson, representing the union, to attorney David Swider, hired by the city, notes “a request from the Kokomo Firefighters Union to resume collective bargaining on a successor agreement to the 2015-2017 agreement.”

The letter goes on to inaccurately refer to Howard County Judge George Hopkins as “Judge Tharpe” when citing Hopkins’ opinion that the two sides resolve the situation through negotiations.

At the first negotiation session, in June, the union presented the city with more than 80 proposals to modify the contract, according to city records. Those records also show that between June 7 and Oct. 11 the two sides met eight times for a total of more than 40 hours.

However, an agreement has yet to be struck, and union members have since denied a specific proposal presented by city officials.

Thompson’s correspondence also says the union expects the city to send Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight and two Common Council members to all future negotiation sessions. Union officials believe their attendance is legally required and hasn’t been fulfilled in past negotiation meetings.

Notably, the fire union also recently filed four motions, two with Hopkins and two with the Indiana Court of Appeals, in a case the judge ruled in the city’s favor.

The union wants Hopkins to reconsider his order allowing the previous contract to expire at the end of December, and allow a new judge to hear the case. In addition, the union is requesting an appeals court consider Hopkins’ ruling.

Court records show that Local 396’s lawyers filed Monday for a “change of judge,” and that the two parties were given seven days to agree on a special judge.

The city on Thursday, though, filed a motion to strike. Kokomo corporation counsel Beth Copeland said the city is "challenging the timeliness of the union's request to change judges."

Hopkins initially ruled against the union after it filed a lawsuit against the city in early December, asking the court to not terminate the fire contract at the end of 2017 and mandate the two sides enter arbitration.

Ultimately, Hopkins denied the union’s sweeping request for a contract extension and later called the issue of an arbitration order “moot” in a written clarification.

City ordinance lays out a 45-day negotiating window during which arbitration can be requested. Though the two sides began contract negotiations on June 7, the union did not submit a written intent to bring the matter to arbitration until Oct. 6.

Hopkins ruled that neither party requested arbitration within the 45-day window following the first meeting, and never had any formal discussions about extending or waiving deadlines.

The months-long dispute between city officials and the Kokomo firefighters’ union took its most contentious and public turn on Jan. 22, when about 200 people, most wearing red shirts meant to symbolize union solidarity, gathered at City Hall to protest the city’s handling of contract negotiations.

Many in the crowd represented local United Auto Workers unions.

Hopkins’ ruling also became a point of contention for local firefighters following a Jan. 24 Kokomo Board of Public Works and Safety meeting.

Local 396 President Chris Frazier said following the Board of Works meeting that the union will continue pursuing the court case, claiming that Hopkins has not given “clear rulings.”

In contrast, Goodnight has stood at odds with many of the union's claims.

Goodnight responded to the rally in an interview with Indiana Public Media, saying Local 396 was previously adamant about receiving a 15 percent raise over three years.

That statement differs from those made by union officials, who said at the rally they are only looking for health insurance “parity” with the Kokomo Police Department.

“When we compare their wages and benefits package with the surrounding areas and even other second-class cities, they’re usually in the top tier in all aspects, whether it be vacation days, holidays, general pay and even retiree benefits and health care,” said Goodnight.

“They are without a contract, but it’s because of their own doing – their inability to either read or comprehend the ordinance, which was written in the 1970s.”

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.


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