A little adversity is good for the city

Published: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:34 p.m.

Many years ago, somebody down at city hall got the bright idea to hand out “Ask me I’ll help” T-shirts to Gainesville employees.

Great PR, right?

Let the taxpayers know that customer service is alive and well in their city government.

Alas, the next time a city labor-management dispute arose, bureaucrats gathered on the steps of city hall to toss their “Ask me I’ll help” shirts on the ground.

Maybe not such good PR after all.

But let’s face it, public service is seldom strictly a labor of love. Whatever “good enough for government work” might mean these days, government work is increasingly a pretty good gig.

Earlier this month, Forbes magazine published a piece titled “Gilt-Edged Pensions,” about the increasing benefits of public employment (and the increasing cost of it all to the taxpayers).

“America, in case you haven’t noticed, is dividing into two nations,” Forbes writer Stephanie Fitch wrote. “The 22.5 million-strong public sector (that includes retirees) is growing ever larger, and enjoying ever greater wages and benefits …

“In private-sector America your job, assuming you still have one, hangs on the fate of the economy… In public-sector America, things just get better and better.”

Anyway, I thought about that old shirt-tossing incident the other day, right after Jeff McAdams threw down the gauntlet to Pegeen Hanrahan.

McAdams is president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, the bargaining unit for most GPD officers. And Hanrahan is, of course, our mayor.

McAdams actually served Hanrahan a double dare.

First he sent the mayor a letter castigating her for complaining because a city employee had written a letter to The Sun that was critical of the commission.

“Are you going to personally target and criticize them [letter writers] for the many wasteful and flawed decisions the City of Gainesville has made under your leadership?” McAdams asked. “If so then, please, put me at the top of your list.”

(Not to worry, I suspect he’s already there.)

McAdams followed that up with a Speaking Out, published in The Sun on Thursday, in which he took the commission to task for voting to spend money to buy Mom’s Kitchen and fix up Ironwood Golf Course in the middle of a fiscal crisis.

He called Hanrahan and the commission “anti-union and anti-employee” and announced that his union intends to conduct “audits of department budgets from across the City” to “hold this commission accountable for wasting taxpayers’ dollars.”

Does that sound like war to you? Me too.

And if you ask me, that’s not a bad thing.

Because frankly as a taxpayer, I want my city commission to have less-than-cozy relations with my paid public servants.

I don’t want commissioners to forget that they were elected to represent our interests, and not necessarily those of our employees.

That fine distinction may be easier to forget than you might think, if only because most city commissioners get out there and hustle for union endorsements come election time.

And let’s face it, McAdams’ double salvo wasn’t motived solely by his fervor for the First Amendment or his indignation over wasteful city spending. The missives were, in fact, strategically timed.

Soon, City Manager Russ Blackburn will ask commissioners for permission to approach the city’s various public employee unions (there are six of them, by the way, not that anybody’s counting) with a request that they agree to reopen contract negotiations and consider giving back some of the pay hikes and benefits already agreed upon.

Can you say “fat chance”? FOP President McAdams just did.

“Because of both these decisions (Mom’s Kitchen and Ironwood) the commission has made it very easy for me to just say no to the city’s request that its non-managerial employees now give back and forfeit their raises which were negotiated and promised in good faith,” McAdams wrote. “In fact I look forward to negotiating even better raises when current contract expires in September, 2010.”

Even better than the three-year, nearly five percent a year raises GPD officers are getting in the current contract? Wow! It’s enough to make our mouths water out here in “private-sector America.”

So the FOP won’t agree to reopen its contract. And that’s fine.

“There’s another contract negotiation in 2010,” Blackburn says.

Management-union negotiations are supposed to be adversarial. And that’s probably a good thing because Gainesville, along with virtually every other local government in Florida, is facing unprecedented fiscal pressures.

On the revenue generating side, an ongoing property tax revolt and a still-crashing housing market are drying up tax revenues.

On the revenue spending side, city management is obliged by law to bargain with representatives of half a dozen public employee unions. Each bargaining unit has an interest in improving wages and benefits with every new contract.

In good fiscal times, it’s easy for management and labor to come to terms.

Maybe too easy.

But these are not good fiscal times. So something’s got to give.

And in fact, cracks have already begun to appear in the city management-labor partnership.

Last year, the FOP won a labor dispute with the city over the contractual right of GPD offices to work overtime on weekends and holidays — whether or not the city actually needs them to work.

Was city management really looking out for the taxpayers when it agreed to that contract provision?

And more recently, four of the unions filed an unfair labor practice act over the commission’s decision to increase health insurance contributions for city retirees.

So now we know that FOP President McAdams is ready to “just say no” to the idea of making concessions in a time of fiscal crisis. And soon we’ll know whether the other five bargaining units will be more or less amenable than the FOP.

What we don’t know, yet, is whether our commissioners and our professional managers are ready to “just say no” to the public employee unions on behalf of us taxpayers.

So I think Jeff McAdams may have done the public a service with his angry challenge to Hanrahan and the commission.

Under the circumstances, a little adversity in this process is not a bad thing.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor for The Sun. He can be reached at voice@gvillesun.com or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.

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