Talent council will not appeal arbitrator's decision

TALENT — An arbitrator's ruling that reinstated two city employees' health benefits and 20-hour workweeks has been accepted by the City Council.

Council members unanimously voted Wednesday for a motion that called for no appeal of the ruling and acceptance of the decision following a 40-minute executive session.

Teamsters Union Local 223's collective bargaining agreement with the city was violated on several grounds, arbitrator Jane R. Wilkinson ruled on Jan 22. The issue occurred when the city reduced Public Works employee Coleen Bradley and Police Department employee Kaylie Newell to 16-hour workweeks in July 2010 to avoid paying them benefits. The ruling also will restore the pair's union memberships.

"I think it was a good decision for Talent," said Mayor Bill Cecil. "It's appropriate."

He declined to discuss what went into the council's decision. Under Oregon public meetings laws, media representatives can attend executive sessions but cannot report on what is discussed.

"I think the City Council made a wise decision and certainly one that is in the best interest of the taxpayers given the economics and the likelihood of success challenging the arbitrator's award," said attorney Akin Blitz of Bullard Law, Portland, who represented the city, during a phone interview Thursday.

An appeal could have been made, arguing that the arbitrator exceeded her authority in making the award, Blitz said.

"Whenever parties engage in litigation or appeals there's tremendous uncertainty as to results and the process is costly," Blitz said.

Before the executive session, Councilman Dan Goyette questioned the assignment of a portion of the legal expenses to funds that include surcharges applied to residents' utility bills.

"It strikes me as a grossly inappropriate way to pay these attorneys fees," said Goyette. Expenses for Blitz were approximately $50,000. Goyette's questions came during a financial report.

City Manager Jay Henry said that each department with union workers has labor attorney fees in its budget. He said the city attempts to break out the costs as equitably as possible.

Goyette said he thought the attorney's fees should come from the general fund rather than surcharge funds when asked by Henry how he would pay the bill.

A mid-year budget report showed that the Police Department had paid $18,960 in labor attorney fees. The Street Fund and the Water Utility Fund each paid $9,504. The latter two funds were budgeted at $1,000 in the category and no money was budgeted in the police fund for labor attorneys. Both the police and street funds receive funding from surcharges.

All three of the areas had spent less than half of their budgets at mid-year, even with the attorney payments, Henry reported.

An annual savings of $28,233 was estimated if the city did not pay health benefits to the two workers. Newell receives a pro-rated share of benefits but Bradley receives full benefits that were grandfathered into the labor contract in 1997 for longtime employees.

In arbitration Blitz contended the city had a management right to reduce the hours as a way to cut expenses. But Wilkinson ruled the reduction was not expressly permitted under the agreement, that it was implemented in bad faith and that the city lacked a compelling business purpose in doing so.

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