Mending Fences: Councilor Vidot, Fire Union Make Peace Following Confrontation After 2019 Vote on Insurance Changes

A major dust up in 2019 between former Council President Damali Vidot and members of the Chelsea Firefighters Union has been resolved with mediation and apologies after a long investigation – one that some councillors feel was an unwarranted expenditure.

Councillor Vidot told the Record this week that the investigation of wrongdoing conducted by the City at a current cost of $46,000 has been resolved with mediation – a process where the Union has issued an apology and Vidot has said she could have done things a little better during a Council vote on changes to City insurance plans in 2019.

“What I was trying to do is to hold people serving in Public Safety to a level of accountability to our residents,” she said. “I know if I kept going with the investigation, the investigators would have probably suggested a reprimand. They asked if I was open to mediation and Union President Brian Capistran said he should have said something sooner and gotten control of the matter. I admit the way we handled the vote wasn’t the best and wasn’t transparent and not the way I want to lead. I want to put this behind us and move on in 2020.”

She noted that Capistran was very professional with her at all times, and respectful as well. She said it was two specific members of the Union that crossed the line in her opinion.

Fire Union officials declined to comment on the resolution, but they did issue an official letter of apology in the matter.

“We still believe the City Council poorly handled that public session,” wrote Capistran. “However, notwithstanding our discontent with the process, I concede that the conduct of some of our members and allies was inappropriate, disrespectful and unprofessional. Public employees should never engage in shouting and aggressive behavior towards members of the City Council. For that behavior, I apologize on behalf of the Union. I regret that I did not exhibit more leadership in controlling this reaction. I hope we can all understand it was in the heat of the moment over a very contentious issue that affects all City employees.”

The genesis of the situation came in 2019 when the City Manager was trying to save money on health insurance costs. He had tried to make changes to the percentages previously, but it was rejected. However, he did ask the Council to give him authority to make changes to plan design to save money. That vote was on the agenda the night in question, and the room was packed with mostly Police and Fire Union personnel, many of whom expected to let their feelings be known during the Public Speaking portion at the beginning of the meeting.

However, former Councillor Bob Bishop called to move the question to a vote before Public Speaking, and Vidot allowed it. That triggered the voted and also a lot of anger – as Union members weren’t afforded an opportunity to speak before the vote.

After the vote, there was a huge confrontation in the hallway outside the Council, with some firefighters screaming and threatening Vidot, she said.

“One of the men said, ‘Don’t call us when your house is on fire,’” she said. “It’s one thing when you hear systemic racism or institutional racism, but it’s another thing when you have an older white male on the Fire Department screaming at you and saying they won’t come if your house is on fire. I moved on at first, but was bothered by it.”

That triggered an investigation when Vidot went to City Manager Tom Ambrosino. A retired judge conducted the investigation, and a private investigator was hired, and surveillance video was reviewed from City Hall. There were several hearings that went for many hours before mediation was suggested.

All of that cost money, and City Solicitor Cheryl Watson Fisher confirmed the costs at the moment are approximately $46,000. Current Council President Roy Avellaneda said he isn’t happy that Vidot used City resources to investigate a matter that started with her own mistakes.

“As current city council president, my focus right now is on what the cost of this investigation was and how there was no input by the Council as a whole to approve or deny the expenditure of nearly $50,000 of taxpayer money on outside legal fees,” he said. “I am already on record as saying that the use of bush league parliamentary procedures by then-President Vidot and former Councilor Bishop to circumvent the opportunity for city union employees to address the City Council and public prior to vote on providing the city manager additional negotiation powers was one of the saddest chapters in City Council history.”

He said he expects that there will be a matter before the Council in the near future to request payment to outside legal counsel for the investigation. At that time, he said there will be a robust discussion.

“The amount of money spent on a fruitless investigation could have been better spent in my opinion on hiring an additional 20 Chelsea youths for our city summer employment program,” he said. “When the matter of transferring additional funds for outside legal services comes up to the Council this year, you can be assured that this matter will be discussed and that safeguards are put in place so that tax dollars are no longer wasted for personal agendas.”

Vidot said she was bothered by the behavior and requested the investigation because she felt that those yelling at her needed to be held accountable. After all, she reasoned, if they were willing to yell at the City Council president, how might they treat a resident with limited English skills, or another woman of color without political power. It was a moment, she said, where she felt she needed to lead. “I’m grateful the City Manager was willing to support me and dedicate resources toward the investigation when I grew concerned of threats I received,” she said. “While many of the bully behaviors I’ve received as a Councilor are reflective of an old Chelsea; they no longer represent the progress we’ve made as a community not our shared values.”

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