Guest Op-ed Misinformation, Bad Behavior and Mistakes Defined Public Employee Vote

By Council President Damali Vidot

There have been many stories circulating regarding a vote that City Council took on Monday and as President of that body I’ve an obligation to respond.  I’ve reflected on the matter significantly since Monday and think it’s best to separate this into three sub-topics: (1) procedure, (2) group health Insurance vote and (3) what actually occurred.

First and foremost, I’d like to remind the public that isn’t privy to City Council meetings or procedures that we meet approximately every two weeks or so and follow the same template for the agenda every week. This template is covered in our City Council Rules that supersede Robert’s Rules of Order (the parliamentary procedure utilized during Council meetings) Every meeting is sandwiched with the pledge of allegiance at the top of the meeting and ends with public announcements from City Councilors.  Public Speaking, Communications /petitions to the council, Unfinished Business and New Business are all titles that serve as the ‘meat’ to the sandwich and under each of those topics are various orders submitted from Councilors or city administration. On Monday May 6th, we had four different zoning public hearings scheduled prior to Public Speaking; as well as a number of communications and matters to be taken up prior to the vote of group health insurance.  As the first public hearing was to commence, Councilor Bishop asked to suspend the rules and move the group health insurance matter up on the agenda to be acted upon. When there is a request for a suspension of the rules, as chair, I must ensure there aren’t any objections from other councilors. There weren’t any objections and therefore the matter was before us to be acted up on. Once that matter was voted on, the rules require that we go right back to the agenda.  Contrary to what’s been said, Public Speaking and communications received related to the topic were not removed from our agenda, has never been removed from an agenda and feel confident to say on behalf of the City Council that the voices of all will always be prioritized and respected in our chambers.

On the matter at hand, there has been a ton of misinformation circulating and I want to be clear on the facts. There is a group called PEC (Public Employee Committee) and this group is made up of representatives of all Chelsea City union employees (teachers, DPW workers, police, fire, E-911, retirees, etc.) The PEC and the City Manager negotiate health insurance for all of their city employees and have been doing so since 2012.  The PEC and the City Manager were successful in their decision to become self-insured meaning that rather than having a health insurance company cover health insurance claims; the city would carry that responsibility and therefore keep health insurance costs from increasing as it had significantly in years prior. The monies that were saved from going the route of self-insured go into a trust fund for the PEC to serve as a cushion for future rising health costs.  The money in that trust fund is to be used ONLY by the PEC and its employees.

For the past couple of months, the City Manager and the PEC have been meeting and unable to come to an agreement on health insurance costs.  The City Manager was looking to make changes to the health insurance that would save the City $1 million, but the PEC didn’t agree with his proposals, nor did he agree to their counter offers.  I won’t get any deeper into the negotiations as it is outside of the scope of our role as City Council. For the record, City Council is responsible for hiring the City Manager to be our negotiator and our main function as City Councilors is oversight of the city’s finances.  The City Manager was requesting an authority to be granted to him under M.G.L. c.32B, Sections 21-23. This authority, if voted in by a majority of City Council would allow the City Manager to use as leverage when negotiating with the PEC and also comes with stipulations to protect employees.  On April 16th, I chaired a Sub-Committee on Conference with Union Representatives and, their attorney so City Councilors can gain a better understanding of both sides and make an informed decision and finally the vote came before us on Monday May 6th.

Folks should know that granting the City Manager this authority under M.G.L. c32B, mandates that within 30 days of the authority being granted the City Manager and the PEC must attempt to negotiate prior to any changes being implemented.  I commend our city employees for their work and commitment to the city, As we continue to grow and change, it is the City’s staff that makes it all possible and I want to acknowledge those efforts. I believe wholeheartedly in the ability of the PEC and the City Manager to be able to come to an agreement as they have in years past.  The CIty Council believes in the fairness and ability of the CIty Manager and granted him the authority we felt necessary to serve as our negotiator and look out for the financial interest of the city’s future, just as I’m sure the city employees have faith in their Union Representatives and lawyer to protect their interest.

Lastly, I’d be remiss to not acknowledge what occurred on Monday night.  We were fully prepared to hear testimony and had created a sign-in sheet at the podium anticipating a heavy public speaking portion of the meeting. We had a packed room and a hefty agenda and in attempting mindfulness of people’s time, chose to move the matter out of order to vote on it. In hindsight, I identify with the frustration of folks who wanted to speak before we voted and may have felt they didn’t have that opportunity to voice their opinion.  As an activist, I certainly understand the frustration of feeling unheard as I was just on the other side a couple of years ago where many of my concerns fell on deaf ears. I’ve spoken to Councilors since the meeting and it is something we would probably have handled differently, though it probably wouldn’t have changed the vote as we have had discussions on this topic for months.  

I want to be clear that Public Speaking was still on the agenda and everyone is always welcomed to come up and speak for four minutes, without interruption.  City employees still had the opportunity to speak after the vote was casted and any Councillor could have requested a motion to reconsider, if so moved by their testimony. Though it isn’t the traditional route, there are a multitude of ways this could have played out and there’s never a way of knowing beforehand the direction the meeting will go once we are in session.

Looking back at the City Council meeting, there are definitely things we could’ve done differently but there is never an excuse for the post-vote actions exhibited by the employees. A young child of about four years of age sat in the front of the Council Chambers watching men in uniform yell, scream, threaten, swear and display behaviors that were less than exemplary. I can understand feeling unheard and the emotions that stirs up. I have advocated for social justice in my community time and time again and have felt the frustration of not being listened to. In those cases, I use the power of my words to convey the message and remain faithful that justice will prevail. Intimidation, threats and/or disrespect is usually counter-productive to effective dialogue.  I hope when the PEC and the City Manager meet as is required by the authority granted, that folks are able to control their emotions long enough to come up with a health insurance contract that works for our hard- working city employees. I urge both the PEC and the City Manager to start with a clean slate and ‘make it work’ as to provide the hard working City staff the thoughtful attention to this matter it deserves.

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