City offers apology as part of settlement with unions


Published: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 9:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 9:07 p.m.

The city of Gainesville on Thursday offered an apology to labor unions for making changes in 2008 to retiree health benefits without first bargaining them, a move deemed illegal by a state appeals court last year.

The city has agreed not to collect over-payments from that period and will pay the unions’ $32,047.40 in legal fees from the case.

In September, the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s appeal of the First District Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the unions, which sued over the 2008 changes because they argued retiree health payments, though not historically bargained in the city, were no longer unilateral benefits because years had passed, making them a “past practice” that must be bargained.

With the city on the losing end of the legal fight, attorneys for the city and the unions involved -- the Communications Workers of America, Florida Police Benevolent Association, International Association of Fire Fighters and Fraternal Order of Police -- hashed out a settlement that was approved by the City Commission at Thursday’s meeting.

“The city of Gainesville regrets unilaterally changing the formula,” City Manager Russ Blackburn said, reading the city’s apology that was part of the deal. “The city apologizes for any inconvenience and uncertainty this change caused you. When the city made these changes, it was doing so to ensure the future financial sustainability of the retiree health insurance program and believed it was acting within the confines of the law. The city now understands under the decision of the appellate court that this change should have first been bargained with the unions before it was implemented by the city.”

The settlement was only part of a busy week for City Attorney Marion Radson, who last month notified commissioners that on July 31 he will be retiring from his post, one he has held since 1985

At its meeting Thursday, the City Commission approved a bidding process to find a firm that will identify potential replacements for Radson while also making sure there is a contingency plan to keep him on the staff in a kind of emeritus role if need be.

Mayor Craig Lowe and Commissioner Jeanna Mastrodicasa said they wanted to pick the next city attorney before the two new commissioners -- who will be elected Jan. 31 or in a runoff Feb. 28 -- take office in May.

Commissioner Todd Chase pointed to the Alachua County Commission, which is waiting until its next election to hire a county manager, as a possible model.

“We’re certainly going to have two new commissioners,” said Chase, noting Mastrodicasa and Scherwin Henry, who are being term-limited out of office, won’t be working with the new attorney. “I’m OK either way if we’ve got a good candidate, as long as we are not rushing to get to that date.”

Earlier in the meeting, Lowe announced a settlement agreement with the Alachua County School Board that was negotiated by Radson’s office and school district attorneys.

In an interview, Radson said he will be entering the city’s program that will allow him to draw a pension while still working if he wants to.

Commissioners on Thursday said they would like to work out a way to keep Radson on board for a while in some role if possible.

“I’d be interested in seeing if there’s any interest in that,” he said.

Radson pointed to a number of key decisions rendered in favor of the city during his tenure, like the state Supreme Court upholding a municipality’s ability to charge a fee for stormwater customers.

“You have to have an understanding of the law and structure what your commission is asking you to do in a manner that would find favor with the courts,” Radson said.

Also on Thursday, Radson sent commissioners a notice that a circuit court judge ruled in favor of the city in one of the three challenges filed by a property owner who challenged the rezoning of property on Northwest 53rd Avenue for the one-stop center for the homeless.

The two other cases are pending.

In other business, the City Commission unanimously hired Little John Engineering and will pay the firm up to $187,645 to go through the city’s land development code and replace some parts of the planning law with so-called form-based codes, basically allowing for a simpler process to get project plans approved.

The commission also voted, 6-1, with Thomas Hawkins in dissent, to allow Butler Plaza to expand into what is to be known as the Towne Centre at Butler Plaza.

Deborah Butler, the president of the owner, Butler Enterprises, cried after the vote.

“It’s been quite a journey,” she told commissioners. “Actually these are tears of joy. Thank you so much. My father and I had this vision over 12 years ago.”

Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or chad.smith@gvillesun.com.

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