It was a great moment when the Town Council came to agreement on the current contract with Tiverton’s firefighters in April 2019.
The negotiations had been a challenge because each side’s bottom line seemed impossible to reconcile with the other’s. The firefighters loathed the schedule that they had to work under a three-platoon system, and the town could not afford overtime bills like we were getting before that system was put in place. After the last election, those of us who were new to the Town Council were told that the whole thing would almost certainly end up in arbitration.
However, we avoided that outcome by setting a tone of working together. We understood that our emergency personnel are valued employees whose expectations are justifiably set by the options they have in nearby communities, and they understood that we had an obligation to represent and protect the residents who ultimately pay the bills.
What finally made the agreement possible was a cost-control measure that required the town administration and fire department to continue having honest give-and-take discussions about staffing, which itself was a positive. We gave the department a bucket of overtime to work with, and if it started draining too fast, the chief could schedule one fewer person per shift to bring things into line. That said, the plan was to avoid doing that by communicating regularly in order to resolve vacancies and other problems right away.
Tiverton residents who would like to know what happened to make overtime an issue again over the past year should read the interim town administrator’s report to the council (available as section 9-F-1 of the council’s backup materials for the July 27, 2020, meeting). Here is a summary of the key points as I see them.
Soon after the contract was complete, the opposition members of the council (mainly Patricia Hilton and Denise deMedeiros) pressured the Budget Committee put an extra $36,000 in the overtime budget. Then Hilton and deMedeiros worked not-so-behind the scenes with Sanford Mantell to add another $34,400 in his elector petition, which ultimately became the budget for the town. This extra $70,400 in the overtime budget sent the signal that Hilton and deMedeiros did not believe the department could hit the target in the contract. That signal obviously created room for the fire chief to believe the overtime limit in the contract was more of a loose guideline.
Then, at exactly the time the firefighter union and the administrator were beginning to figure out what to do about some unexpected increases in overtime, Hilton and deMedeiros were working with others to oust the council members who negotiated the contract in an aggressive and unprecedented recall election. That sort of unsettling turmoil makes it extremely difficult for an organization to have a spirit of cooperation.
Once the recall election put them back in power, Hilton and deMedeiros refocused their aggression on the fire chief and the town administrator. At first, they were on the losing side of the vote that gave the fire chief a raise at the suggestion of the administrator, but they pushed the rest of the council to keep alive the possibility of reneging on it for weeks of embarrassing uncertainty. Shortly after that, this new environment of hostility drove the town administrator out of his job. Then the fire chief was out.
Although we should keep in mind that the overtime for fiscal year 2020 was still the second lowest it’s been in 12 years, it shouldn’t be surprising that the events described above led to more fire department overtime than the limit set in the contract. It also isn’t surprising that all of these things are what happened.
The sort of people who can’t stand to let their local political opposition actually finish out a term in office are exactly the sort of people who make town government a tense place to work, put everybody on guard, and prevent cooperation. A few weeks into working on the fire contract, I heard again and again how, before we took office after the 2018 election, the negotiating table had felt like a battle zone. Once they were back on their thrones, it didn’t take long for Hilton and deMedeiros to put away their assassin knives and whip out their billy clubs.