Vergennes police officers seek to form union

VERGENNES — The officers of the Vergennes Police Department have voted to unionize by affiliating with the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEPBA), a union that represents many law enforcement agencies in New England, including in Vermont.
The proposed union includes non-supervisory personnel only, and not Chief George Merkel. Merkel took no position on whether his department should unionize.
“That’s up to the guys,” he said.
There are currently eight officers in the department, not counting Merkel, but one is funded by a grant to serve as a countywide traffic-safety coordinator.
Notice of the vote to unionize reached city officials in the form of a June 25 letter from the Vermont Labor Relations Board that requested a full list of “non-supervisory fulltime employees” of the department.
That letter arrived as the Vergennes City Council was engaged in a contentious debate on whether to cut one or two officers from the department. That discussion played out publicly as council members worked to set a new municipal tax rate by a June 30 deadline. They did so on June 28 with an understanding that no cuts would be made. On July 23 adopted a budget without reducing police personnel.
The Labor Relations Board required a response from city officials on whether they would accept the union as an appropriate bargaining unit, call for a formal vote to confirm the desire to affiliate with NEPBA, or contest the movement to unionize.
The original deadline to respond was July 12, but the board extended the deadline to July 24 to allow City Manager Matt Chabot and the council to discuss the question at its scheduled July 23 meeting.
However, on advice of a city lawyer early last week, Chabot said that discussion was stricken from the agenda.
City officials were also advised not to comment on the issue, Chabot said.
Before that advice was received, Chabot said he saw no reason to oppose department unionization — he had planned to recommend to council members that they not contest the union.
“My recommendation is that Vergennes is one of a handful of municipalities in the state that do not have a unionized police department. And based on that I’m not sure why it would be advantageous to the city to not allow that to happen,” he said.
Chabot said the city has contacted a lawyer to negotiate a contract with a unionized department if necessary.
On Wednesday he filed the city’s formal response to the unionization effort, but followed legal advice did not reveal what that response to the Labor Relations Board was.
“At the advice of counsel I’m not supposed to be discussing this,” Chabot said.
When pressed about why a response from one public entity to another — the city to the Labor Relations Board — would not be made public, Chabot on Monday told the Independent that he had “advised the LRB that the City agrees to a consent election.”
Police officers said they were working on a statement of their reasons for wishing to unionize, but were waiting to learn the city’s response before making any comment. As of Friday morning they had not received that formal response from the Labor Relations Board.
Chabot confirmed city police officers are not paid while their status is on call for potential duty. Vergennes public works employees also are not paid while on call.
In upcoming negotiations with police and other Vergennes employees, health insurance benefits could be an issue. A 15 percent increase in the cost of providing those benefits in this fiscal year (July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020) translated to an additional $94,000 in city spending.
During budget talks officials said Vergennes pays 100 percent of the cost of those plans, a practice they said might be revisited in the future. Also discussed was seeking other plan providers.

If the Vergennes officers’ effort to form a collective bargaining unit is successful it would actually be the department’s second police union.
In June 1996, the city police department’s officers voted to affiliate with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. At that point the department consisted of five officers and a chief.
City officials did not contest the election, in which officers voted unanimously in favor of joining the union. But they were not pleased — then-Mayor Dick Adams suggested if the officers were not happy they should have joined him for coffee. Adams said he took “personal offense” at the vote.
In September 1996 the union and its representative sat down for the first of several bargaining sessions with city officials and their representation. Talks were unproductive, and in early 1997 federal mediation failed to bridge the gap between the sides. Meanwhile the department became embroiled in a scandal involving improper behavior of its then chief, who according to then city manager Mel Hawley was “separated” from employment later in 1997.
Several officers resigned early in 1997, and by that May only one officer remained in the department. Late that month he filed papers to decertify the union. The city council in June 1997 then adopted a budget that would fund a chief and four full-time officers, one fewer than the previous year. 
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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