Doug Millroy: Accessing Information, Not Easy at City Hall

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When the controversy surrounding the hiring of two public educators at salaries of $102,000 at the city’s fire service was raging last year, I mentioned as an aside in a column criticizing the hirings that the firefighters had been working without a contract since 2014.

When I heard recently that the paramedics, who are currently in a protracted negotiations war with city officials, complain that they had been working without a contract since March of last year, it was only natural, I suppose, that the situation regarding the firefighters came to mind.

So I put the question as to where things stood with them to Mayor Christian Provenzano and Chief Administrative Officer Al Horsman.

“In regard to the firefighters contract, is anything being done, any approach being made?” I asked. “The firefighters have been without a contract since 2014 and it is my understanding that one of the sticking points with the city is the 24-hour shift, which the firefighters got in an arbitration award in 2014. The details of implementation were to be worked out and they never have been. Apparently there is also a question surrounding a master benefits plan . . . .“Anyway, since the paramedics are complaining that they have been working without a contract for a year, I thought it timely to find out what is happening with the firefighters, who have been working without one for four years.”

Horsman explained:

– Firefighters were awarded 24-hour shifts through interest arbitration April 15, 2016.

– The Board of Arbitration remains ceased pertaining to the matter of a model for 24 hour shifts.

– Terms of implementation of the 24-hour shifts are nonetheless being negotiated and the 24-hour shifts are intended to commence Jan. 1, 2019, as agreed to by the Association.

– The Master Benefits plan for firefighters is in the midst of a grievance hearing so we are unable to comment at this time.

– The parties cannot proceed to negotiations for the next firefighters contract until all matters of the last contract (2014) are settled.

I imagine the firefighters will be pleased to hear the impasse has been broken and the 24-hour shifts will be negotiated, as per the arbitrators decision, even though it took four years to get there.

Under the 2014 arbitration award first-class firefighters saw their yearly wage total climb to $89,864, a figure I quoted in my column of March 4 last year.

Since in the past the wage of a first-class firefighter has not been far behind the wage paid a first-class constable in our police service, it would seem the city is going to face a pretty severe financial hit when forced to come up with four years of wage increases retroactively.

And, of course, it will also be faced with negotiating increases for three or four years down the road, meaning the increases will cover seven or eight years.

Wow.

The mayor left it to others to respond to my question, saying: “I believe a lot of work has been done there but I’m not involved in the day to day labour work or negotiations so I will leave it to the people who are.”

I thought he might be a tad more involved than that, having gotten a lesson from the hiring of the two public educators.

“I was not aware of the details of the positions, including their salaries, until the positions were posted,” he responded to my email at the time questioning the hefty salaries. “Human resource and management functions such as writing job descriptions, grading jobs and posting jobs do not involve mayor and council.

“When I was made aware of the positions and looked at them, the salary struck me as high and I raised the matter with the CAO. Other councillors raised the same concerns with me and I ensured that administration knew that councillors shared the same concern as I.”

I wish they had also shared their concern with us, the taxpaying public, I said at the time.

And I also wished something had been done about it.

I also was hoping now that in the issue at hand our council might want to be a little more involved, or at least have some knowledge, of events at the fire service, considering what went before with the public educators.

So I emailed several councillors asking how informed they were about the state of negotiations with the firefighters, mentioning they were working under a 2014 contract.

Only three replied, one directly saying no comment, one basically saying no comment, one saying council was not informed about negotiations and expressing surprise that the firefighters were working under a 2014 contract.

In regard to the public educators, although two were hired, one was let go after six weeks; the total cost to the city for that brief hiring come out at more than $22,000. That, of course, was small potatoes compared to what would have been paid out on a yearly basis if the person had been kept on the job.

I have never been able to find out whether the one person hired was let go because those  in the administration came to their senses or came under pressure, nor why both were not let go.

In his reply, Horsman also laid out how I should forward any future questions I have for city officials”

“Our Corporate Communications Division is led by Ms. Tessa Vecchio copied here., he wrote. “Per the media relations policy now in place at the Corporation of the City of Sault Ste. Marie, it’s asked that all media inquiries be funneled through Tessa who will arrange an appropriate and timely response. In future, could you please send questions such as the contract information transmitted here to Tessa to coordinate internally for a response.”

Ah, for the old days of ease of access, when you were on a first-name business with most of the managers at city hall and could pick up the phone and speak with them directly.

Now who would come up with such a change and why?

Job creation maybe?

 

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Doug Millroy
After 61 years in the news business, 41 of them associated with The Sault Star as editor, Doug continues to share his passion for writing as a columnist since retirement.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Millroy: If you have not done so already, please take the time to read the Fire Protection and Prevention act, where you will find that the first line of Fire defense is public education. The majority of modern full time fire departments employ public educators at the same wage and in many municipalities, their rate is higher than ours.

    Part II of Fire Protection and Prevention act is quite clear and it states the following:
    Municipalities responsibilities are as follows;
    2.(1) Every municipality shall,
    a) establish a program in the municipality that must include public education with respect to fire safety and certain components of fire prevention.

    Furthermore, Fire Marshall communique 2014/19, states that the 3 lines of fire defense as defined by the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office and they are as follows:
    Defense line 1) public education
    Defense line 2) fire safety standards and enforcement
    Defense line 3) emergency response

  2. Time to send the cao, mayor and council packing. A media relations coordinator? Another smoke and mirrors obstacle. To the councillors, one in particular. Where is your your fire chief that you spoke so highly of and put your trust in?

  3. Interesting that our council is still in the dark regarding the firefighters. After they all followed along so closely with the former chief’s plan taking every word he spoke as gospel. Now the former chief is up on fraud charges and who knows what that’s all about since it keeps getting dragged along in court. Council seems to be fairly quiet on that front.

    The move to a single media person seems to have also slowed down the route to reporting coming from city hall. More roadblocks for clear public information.
    Our Mayor seems to be in the dark as well. What happened to him stepping in to help resolve all the problems stirred up from their former “fire guy” they stood so strongly behind? The firefighters must be somewhere at the point where the 25% cuts have come to a reality. I can only imagine the amount of overtime that is being paid out to sustain a proper fire service, due to the personnel cuts imposed on this department.

    Let’s hope that the Fire Risk Assessment that was due last fall, will come to light soon, so our city can move on with a concrete plan for our fire service. You would think our councilors would show a little concern in what is going on with all of our emergency services in light of the pending EMS strike.

    Sault residents need to be prepared to get some substantial responses from the upcoming election candidates on exactly how to fix the mess left behind by this present group, in many aspects of how our city is presently being run.

  4. What ever happened to the transparency that they all talked about during the last election and still, when it suits them, they harp on it again. I agree with both Ted and Bri. People complain before election day and then turn around and re-elect them. We have to get rid of age, self interests, and complacency- Some/two have been sitting there too long.

  5. Is is SO time to wipe out the city Councillors and mayor and get some fresh blood in SSM city hall. They are like moldy bread, expired and useless.

    • Voters express the same concerns before every election. What happens? We put back the same councillors we have been complaining about. I suspect this will happen again as each councillor seems to have a “following”.

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