By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Havre City Council and a representative of the union representing 17 Havre police officers will meet tonight for the first time to discuss the union's grievance against the city.
Dick LeTang, a field officer for the Montana Public Employees Association, said today he will attend the meeting, and that he is optimistic the matter can be resolved without going to binding arbitration.
"We're going to make a good faith effort on our side and I'm sure they'll do the same," LeTang said. "... This hasn't turned into a letter-writing campaign and that's positive."
City Council member Jack Brandon, who chairs the council's Labor Relations Committee, also expressed optimism.
"We're working to resolve this and I'm confident we will," he said. "These things just take time and they have to go through the proper channels."
The grievance, filed Aug. 19, alleges the city engaged in an unfair labor practice when it passed on new higher health insurance premiums to Havre police officers for the new fiscal year. The union said that according to its two-year contract with the city, this year's health insurance costs had to be negotiated. The city agreed to pick up any increase in health insurance premiums for last year - the first year of the contract - but the contract states that, "For the second year, Medical Insurance shall be open for negotiation."
City officials have said the city acted properly and followed the contract, which says, "The City will pay any excess premium cost for the first year of the contract only."
City Council President Rick Pierson said today he scheduled tonight's committee of the whole meeting - set for 6 p.m. at City Hall - last week after he received the union's request for the council to review the grievance.
Pierson said the council will not take action tonight, but will discuss the grievance and then decide whether to forward it to the regular City Council meeting on Oct. 6.
Then, the council could vote to negotiate with the union, or it could deny the grievance. If the complaint is not settled, it could be submitted to the state Board of Personnel Appeals within 15 days.
The article of the contract governing the duration of the agreement required either party to send out written notice before Feb. 28 if it wanted to reopen some aspect of the contract. Any negotiations had to start before March 15.
The contract states, "Failure to give notice of intent to open by February 28, 2003, shall cause this agreement to remain in full force for (1) year from the expiration date."
City Council member Tom Farnham, who chaired the Labor Relations Committee until Jan. 1, said the committee tried to set up a meeting with LeTang to reopen the contract, but that LeTang did not respond.
LeTang said the union sent a letter dated March 1 to Havre Mayor Bob Rice asking him to reopen the contract, but that there was no response.
Rice has said he did not receive the letter, but that it went to Brandon.
Brandon said he is not sure if he received the letter, and that he may not have been the committee chair at that time.
Rice dismissed the grievance in a letter to the union, which it received on Sept. 12. The union pursued the matter, requesting a review by the City Council.
Pierson said he would not comment on whether he thinks the city acted improperly until after tonight's hearing.
"We need to hear what all parties have to say," he said. "I'm not anti-union by any means, but we have to look at this grievance before we make a decision."
City Council member Emily Mayer also said she would not comment until after the meeting.
"I looked at some paperwork that was mailed to me this weekend, but I want to listen to what the police have to say before I make a comment," she said.
Farnham said he does not think the city is at fault.
"I feel that basically we did everything that we've been asked for," Farnham said. "We did ask LeTang to set up a meeting. He didn't respond."
City Council members Doug Larson and Gary Schubert could not be reached for comment this morning.
City Council member Dana West said she was at work and did not have time to comment.