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Cape Coral firefighter union tries fresh start

Mistrust marked past negotiations with city.

Dec. 16, 2012
File photo: A firefighter for the Cape Coral Fire Department pulls the truck out to be washed. The city's firefighters union is negotiating a new contract with the city.
File photo: A firefighter for the Cape Coral Fire Department pulls the truck out to be washed. The city's firefighters union is negotiating a new contract with the city. / file photo


The leaders of Cape Coral’s firefighters union said Friday they hoped to wash away the bad taste after the last round of contract negotiations, when they weren’t sure whether city representatives were lying to them.

“In the past few years, what happened at the table, what we’ve been told, is the state of the city’s finances is not always what I believe to be accurate,” said Robert Topoleski, a representative of the battalion chiefs bargaining unit. “I think it’s more about agenda than it is about the truth.”

Friday was the first round of negotiations between the city and the fire union, which has about 200 members, in the new fiscal year.

Among the topics discussed was a contract issue that has resulted in firefighters turning down promotions from lieutenant to battalion chief because of a drop in compensation.

“I’ve seen some of the best potential people we have come back and say, ‘You know what chief? No thanks,’” said Fire Chief Bill Van Helden, who is not part of the union but sat in on the meeting.

Van Helden also echoed Topoleski’s point. “To be candid, there were times that what the city was saying our financial position was I think didn’t matched up exactly with what the economist would represent back to the union,” Van Helden said.

Union President Brendan Fonock said the city told them it expected property values to decline by 10 percent, when values increased nearly 4 percent.

“So that’s what we’re used to,” Fonock said. “We have to overcome that.”

City Manager John Szerlag said he experienced a similar situation in Troy, Mich., where he was previously city manager. “The relationship between management and labor was very bad,” Szerlag said. “Morale was poor; there was mistrust.”

Trust was earned over time, he said, and more than 20 contracts were eventually signed.

Szerlag is banking on an approach known as interspace bargaining, in which the opposing parties try not to take sides when they come to the table. Instead, all options are discussed.

Hal Stack, a labor consultant Szerlag hired to lead the sessions, also is divvying members of both sides into subcommittees to investigate each of the issues to be negotiated, including wages and pension reform. Once those committees have gathered the necessary data, they report back to the main group and bargaining begins.

The process differs from the previous approach, in which union representatives hashed out their differences with the city’s labor lawyer, John Hament. The sessions often became contentious.

At one point, the fire union called for former City Manager Gary King’s resignation in exchange for certain concessions. That move prompted Hament to declare an impasse and King to decry the union’s “arrogance and lack of professionalism.”

The police union is set to begin negotiations on Monday. The general employees union met Thursday and is scheduled for another session on Tuesday.

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