City Council to consider restoring mayor's authority to negotiate contracts -
Published Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 8:07 am
City Council to consider restoring mayor's authority to negotiate contracts

The City Council next week will consider returning authority to negotiate city labor contracts to the Mayor's Office.

The move would grant Mayor Jean Stothert the authority she helped strip from her predecessor and would allow her to directly engage in negotiations with the police and fire unions that opposed her election.

A resolution to turn over negotiating authority, requested by new council President Pete Festersen, was cleared Tuesday for a vote at next week's council meeting.

Festersen said the council favors the proposal.

“There is unanimous support to give Mayor Stothert the opportunity to start fresh with a new round of negotiations, and we will continue to monitor this progress closely,” he said.

“The City Council did a good job representing the taxpayers, but negotiations should be the responsibility of the executive branch.”

Stothert told reporters Tuesday that she has asked council members to give her negotiating authority.

“If they do restore that negotiating authority ... I will negotiate a fair contract for the hardworking taxpayers of Omaha,” she said. “The city's long-term financial stability depends on it.”

Stothert told The World-Herald last week that she would preserve an independent negotiator position and ask the council to maintain its labor negotiating committee.

The proposed resolution says the council expects negotiators to “update the City Council regarding important and significant developments.”

Police Sgt. John Wells, head of the police union, expected the proposed change.

“We've said all along that it doesn't matter who we're negotiating with,” he said. “We'll sit down at the table with anybody.”

Wells said the city and the police union must start negotiations on a new contract by November, although he expects the talks to begin sooner than that.

Stothert, Festersen and Councilman Chris Jerram formed a negotiating team that reached its biggest agreement with the firefighters union last year. That contract, which expires in 2014, cut some health care expenses for the city and put the troubled police and fire pension fund on a path to solvency.

But Fire Department officials say the contract's provisions are largely responsible for a multi­million-dollar shortfall in this year's department budget.

Labor agreements emerged as a principal issue during the city elections.

Stothert, during her campaign, promised to reduce city spending, partly by way of cheaper labor contracts.

She has said her goals to eliminate the restaurant tax and reduce property tax rates would require long-term efforts to streamline city operations, as well as union agreements that reduce health care costs and stabilize city pension funds.

The bulk of the city's operational budget is tied up in employee wages and benefits, some of which are codified in union contracts and subject to labor negotiations.

A vote to return negotiating authority to the Mayor's Office would reverse an August 2011 council decision.

Five council members — Stothert, Festersen, Jerram, Franklin Thompson and Tom Mulligan — voted at that time to strip Mayor Jim Suttle of negotiating power, rebuking him for his handling of a controversial fire union contract.

“That was a vote of both Democrats and Republicans on the council,” Stothert said. “And we said we would negotiate a better contract. We felt like we did.

“Again, I do feel like that authority should be with the chief executive, and I have asked them to consider giving it back to the mayor since that was a vote of no confidence with the previous mayor.”

Rescinding the mayor's power to negotiate labor deals — and fully returning that responsibility to the council — ended a policy that had been in place since 1973, the year that Edward Zorinsky was elected mayor.

The City Attorney's Office said the City Charter grants the council authority to adopt and change employee pay plans and fringe benefits.

Because of that, Assistant City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch wrote in a memo to council members, “it is necessary that the city's negotiating team represents the City Council, unless the City Council delegates that authority to the mayor.”

World-Herald Staff Writer Erin Golden contributed to this report.

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