City Council, Municipal Employees At Odds on Health Insurance Changes

There will be no do-over on a City Council vote that gives City Manager Thomas Ambrosino the ability to negotiate changes to the city’s group health insurance plan.

In a controversial vote earlier this month, the Council approved the request by Ambrosino, a move that the City Manager said would give him greater negotiating leverage with the city’s Public Employee Committee (PEC). The City’s current group health plan is governed by a three-year agreement with the PEC that expires on June 30 of this year.

Employees on Broadway in front of City Hall on Monday protested the move regarding potential changes to their health insurance. The Council debated the issue once again on Monday night.

That vote was taken before the dozens of current and former municipal employees had the opportunity to address the issue at the early May meeting.

However, Monday night, the public employees were back in force, holding signs and passing out pamphlets before the meeting and crowding into Council Chambers as the meeting began.

Several union representatives took to the microphone during the public speaking portion of the City Council meeting, expressing their displeasure at the vote and what they saw as the council’s cutting off their opportunity to debate the issue.

“Two weeks ago, I was appalled by the way this meeting was run,” said Don Dabenigno, president of the Chelsea Teachers’ Union. “Not letting a number of residents and city employees talk about such an important issue was wrong, in my opinion.”

In addition to stifling debate, a number of those who spoke noted that the potential for increase in health insurance premiums and costs puts an unfair burden City workers, and also noted that the City’s health care trust fund is robust.

“When we have that much money in the bank, it seems strange to ask employees to pay more for health insurance,” said Kathryn Anderson, a Chelsea teacher.

Several speakers also stated that Chelsea public employees are not paid as well those in surrounding communities, and that asking them to pay increased health insurance costs could stifle the City’s ability to hire and retain staff in the schools and police and fire departments.

Monday night, the public employees’ immediate hopes for reconsideration by the City Council hinged on an order introduced by Councillor-At-Large Roy Avellaneda. The order would have temporarily allowed the Council to file for reconsideration of a vote within the last 60 days, rather than the 24 hour time period allowed under Council rules.

“I think a huge mistake was made when the public was not allowed to voice their opinion,” said Avellaneda.

Avellaneda and Yamir Rodriguez cast the two dissenting votes on the health insurance negotiation order, while Calvin Brown was out of the state due to a prior commitment and was not at the earlier meeting.

Avellaneda noted that councilors are allowed to speak several times on issues, and that other City boards are required to take public input on issues.

“I am not asking for any change in the vote, that is not the point,” he said. “This allows our public employees to present information, even if the end result is the same. I don’t want the legacy of the City Council to be that we didn’t listen to our residents.”

But District 1 Councillor Robert Bishop said there was ample opportunity at the previous meeting after the vote for someone to suspend the rules to reconsider the vote or call for public speaking.

“No one said a word about public speaking, and I did not feel like it was my position to say that, since I was not on that side,” said Bishop.

Bishop also pointed out that there was an opportunity for union members to comment on the proposal at a public committee conference that was held two weeks before the council vote.

District 5 Councillor Judith Garcia said she took responsibility for not allowing the public speaking during the meeting, but also noted that she did her homework on the vote, and that there was the chance for public input at the earlier conference meeting.

Garcia also said that the council vote does not mean an immediate change in health coverage, rather it gives the City Manager a tool to negotiate with the unions.

Avellaneda’s proposal to allow for temporary filing for reconsideration failed by a 7-4 vote, with Brown, Rodriguez, and District 2 Councillor Luis Tejada siding with Avellaneda.

During the meeting, Brown spoke against amending the council rules, but after the meeting, Brown said he ultimately said he sided with Avellaneda’s order because he believed the city’s hard-working employees deserved the opportunity to be heard.

Union members’ hopes may now rest on legal action.

A May 15 email to Ambrosino on behalf of the PEC from Patrick Bryant of the law firm Pyle Rome states that the PEC will pursue all avenues of legal relief if plan to implement health insurance plan design changes is not rescinded.

“While the City Council adopted the laws, having been led by you to believe that you would still bargain in good faith with the PEC before being implemented, you almost immediately have used this power to retaliate against the PEC, and the working men and women of this City that they represent,” Bryant stated in the email to Ambrosino.

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