Fire mediator pushes for remote talks in city dispute

Watertown Fire Department on South Massey Street. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — The mediator who will intercede in the case between the firefighters’ union and the city wants it to move ahead quickly and be handled in a video conference.

After meeting just one time in February, the city and the Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191 both filed an impasse in their labor negotiations.

William Conley, director of conciliation with the Public Employment Relation Board in Albany, named himself as the mediator, City Attorney Robert J. Slye said.

Mr. Conley notified both parties he’d like to start working on the issue in the next week through a video conference. He gave a few dates to start the process, but Mr. Slye said City Manager Kenneth A. Mix and human resource director Matthew Roy are too busy working on the city’s $41.9 million budget that includes 23 layoffs.

“We just can’t do it,” he said.

Mr. Slye also expressed concerns about handling the process through a video conference and would rather meet face to face.

On Feb. 28, the city and the union met for their first negotiations in four years with both sides not budging on the same sticking point — minimum manning. The session produced no results, so both sides declared an impasse.

Union president Daniel Daugherty said it’s going to be different if it goes to a video conference, which he favors in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s also happening faster. This time, it’s taken just two months to get to the mediation stage. When the fire contract expired in 2014, it took almost a year.

“I’m just glad that the mediator wants to begin,” he said.

The city continues to insist that the stipulation that 15 firefighters be on duty at the same time remained on the negotiating table. The union will not talk about minimum manning.

That issue was the sticking point that stalled talks during their six-year labor dispute.

Legal arguments over arbitration regarding the minimum manning issue made it all the way to the state’s highest court, with the union winning.

The two sides avoided further arbitration on Nov. 23, seemingly ending their contentious legal battles.

In January, the election brought Mayor Smith and new Councilman Jesse Roshia into office. The mayor has been a longtime critic of the union and minimum manning.

The relationship between the city and the union has become more testy after the mayor recently proposed cutting down on the number of fire department’s medical calls.

The firefighters have not had a contract since 2014.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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