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Vergennes police officers vote in favor of union

VERGENNES — The eight officers of the Vergennes Police Department on Thursday afternoon voted to form a union, doing so 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 vote was 7-0, with one department officer not able to make it to an election held at Vergennes City Hall, not at the police station as the Vermont Labor Relations Board executive director had originally planned.
The union, which the Labor Relations Board is expected to rubber-stamp after a 10-day waiting period, includes non-supervisory personnel only, and not Chief George Merkel. Many Vermont police departments are unionized. 
Merkel took no position on whether his department should unionize. 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.
City officials in July made it official they did not oppose the officers’ wish to affiliate with NEPBA, and they agreed to Thursday’s balloting.
Officers have declined comment to the Independent on their reasons for seeking union affiliation. After Thursday’s vote Officer Mark Barber, who is serving as the Vergennes union president pending a formal vote on union officers after certification, said they were pleased with the outcome and ready to sit down soon and work on a contract with the city.
“I think we’re all happy, and we’re looking forward to starting the process and moving forward from here,” Barber said.
Union members said they would wait until they sat down at the bargaining table to discuss publicly any issues they hope to address in contract talks, in part because they believe city officials should be the first to hear what the officers have to say.
“(Residents) are going to get that information as things go,” said Sgt. Jason Ouellette. “We just want to make sure the negotiation process goes smoothly. We don’t want to make it feel like us vs. them.”
Ouellette said that union members hoped for a “transparent” process once talks begin, and he did generalize about union requests.
 “I don’t think anything we’re going to ask for or want will be unreasonable,” he said.
Vergennes City Manager Matt Chabot confirmed again on Friday the city would not contest the election, meaning the Labor Relations Board certification will be a formality. Chabot said he expected negotiations would begin soon after the 10-day waiting period ended on Sept. 1.
His remarks on those upcoming talks echoed those of Barber’s.
“We look forward to sitting down with our force to see what concerns have led them to need to form a union,” Chabot said.
The officers notified the Labor Relations Board in June of their intent to affiliate with NEPBA. In June the city council and Chabot were engaged in a contentious public debate on whether to reduce the number of officers in the department by one or two. Ultimately they approved a tax rate and accepted a budget from Chabot that did not include cuts.
Issues that could be on the bargaining table have surfaced during recent budget talks and related conversations.
Chabot has confirmed that, like Vergennes public works employees, city police officers are not paid while their status is on call for potential duty.
Health insurance benefits could also crop up. What city officials called a 15 percent increase in the cost of providing those benefits this year translated to an additional $94,000 in spending in the new budget.
During budget talks city officials also 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.
Thursday marked the second time the city department’s officers voted to unionize. In July 1996 the department’s five 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 that election, which was unanimous in favor of joining the union. 
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. He filed late that month 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 andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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