OGDENSBURG — A memo from the city manager barring fire department personnel, on or off duty, from speaking with the media about department business has resulted in Ogdensburg Firefighters International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1799 members on Thursday to file an improper practice charge against the city with the state Public Employment Relations Board.
The Sept. 6 memo from City Manager Stephen P. Jellie, who also serves as the city’s fire chief, to fire department personnel has three directives, which are: For him to be given a briefing at the beginning of each shift; for him to be notified of any critical incident that occurs during a shift as soon as possible; and all media inquiries to be directed to him.
It’s the third directive that’s noted in the union’s complaint.
Listed in the memo as “interim letter of instruction,” the third directive states that all media requests for information will be referred to the city manager’s office. On-duty personnel are not permitted to speak with the media without the city manager’s approval, and off-duty personnel are not permitted to speak with the media in reference to emergency responses or official city business without the city manager’s approval. Union officials, both on or off duty, are permitted to speak with the media on matters considered official functions of the union.
Union representatives met with Mr. Jellie Sept. 14 to express their concerns about the memo. The union complained that members both on and off duty have a right to discuss matters related to their terms and conditions of employment with the media, and that the policy was overly broad. At that meeting, the union said it requested the policy be withdrawn. In its complaint, the union states Mr. Jellie responded saying he would not withdraw the policy. Mr. Jellie also said he would discipline any member who violated the policy.
In an email, Mr. Jellie said the “interim letter of instruction” given to all fire department personnel is just that, “an interim instruction until a formal policy can be written and if required, negotiated with the union.”
But, Mr. Jellie said, written in the “interim letter of instruction,” is the statement that union officials, on duty or off duty, are permitted to speak with the media “on those matters that are considered official functions of the union.”
In its complaint, the union said that by attempting to restrict and prohibit the union’s conversations with the media, and attempting to preclude statements involving terms and conditions of employment, which might be in conflict to the viewpoints of the city manager, “the city unlawfully interfered with the internal operation, administration and sovereignty of the Union.”
“It is unfortunate that during the strained fiscal times the City of Ogdensburg, NY is experiencing the Firefighter’s Union continues to assert that their needs are more vital to the city than that of all other departments,” Mr. Jellie wrote in an email. “City Council performed their duty and acted in a highly responsible manner when making changes, that included personnel layoffs and a hiring freeze on vacant positions, in response to the challenges all levels of government are facing during the pandemic.
“The city of Ogdensburg will continue to look for ways to improve the efficiency of local government and reduce the tax burden placed on its citizens, to include a continued request of the Firefighter’s Union to recognize the financial realities we are facing and be willing to do their part to work collectively as part of the overall city team,” he wrote.