Millions hang on his word

– City and fire union officials have agreed on a third-party
mediator to settle ongoing labor disputes, after rejecting the
first 13 candidates put forward by the state.
Gilroy – City and fire union officials have agreed on a third-party mediator to settle ongoing labor disputes, after rejecting the first 13 candidates put forward by the state.

The parties have agreed on John Kagel, a Palo Alto attorney with more than three decades of experience in labor law and mediation.

Kagel could not be reached for comment by press time, but his resume indicates a lengthy history of service that spans 7,500 arbitration and mediation cases and 600 mediations, fact findings, and other dispute-resolution matters.

Kagel’s fee as of January 2003 was $1,200 per day, plus $175 for study and writing time.

Representatives for the city and Fire Local 2805 went through two lists of candidates provided by the state before settling on Kagel, who will serve as the “neutral” member of the three-person arbitration panel that will decide a new contract for the city’s fire union. He will have tie-breaking power over the two members of the panel, which also includes one representative each for the city and fire union.

“We’ve been a little stagnant for a while,” said Human Resources Director LeeAnn McPhillips, speaking of the selection process. “We weren’t happy with the names on the first list. We bounced around some names that weren’t on the list with the other side and that didn’t go anywhere, so we called for a new list.”

McPhillips said several of the candidates on the first list did not have enough relevant experience.

“This is an important process for local 2805 and the city and we want someone who has training to be able to run the meetings and render a fair decision,” she said.

Christopher Platten, lead counsel for the fire union, appeared pleased with the selection. He said he has worked with Kagel several times in his 22 years as a labor attorney. He also said Kagel has served as an independent arbitrator for the city in the last decade.

Platten said Kagel is a second-generation labor arbitrator, following in the footsteps of his father Sam who has been in the business for more than 60 years.

“Mr. Kagel is highly respected in the field,” Platten said. “He is well-versed in labor relations matters and has issued thousands of decisions.”

City officials said dates for arbitration hearings have not been scheduled since they have yet to receive confirmation from Kagel regarding his selection. The notification was mailed on Tuesday, according to McPhillips.

Kagel’s selection comes nine months after the start of labor negotiations and four months after the city and fire union reached impasse. City officials have said they cannot afford the various demands of the fire union, while representatives for Local 2805 claim the city has the money but is refusing to grant union members many of the same benefits given to other public employees.

The 36-member fire union is asking for a retirement package that would allow firefighters to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their salary. Called “3 at 50,” the program provides three percent of the highest year’s salary for every year worked. Firefighters have also asked for wage increases that could amount to 9 percent by 2007, more discretionary vacation, paid time off for union-related business, fully-paid health care premiums, and a post-retirement cash bonus for fulfilling certain career milestones.

Firefighters Local 2805 has argued for the “3 at 50” package on grounds that Gilroy police already receive the benefits. Since police negotiated the benefits in 2001, the city’s public safety retirement budget, which includes both firefighters and police, has spiked from nearly $900,000 in 2001 to more than $3.2 million for the next fiscal year.

City officials say they cannot afford the fire union’s overall demands, which they estimate would amount to a 25-percent increase in the public safety budget over three years.

The city charter specifies that the arbitrator will consider the city’s ability to pay for union demands, as well as other factors traditionally used during bargaining.

Once hearings are scheduled – several day’s worth are expected – the arbitrator will decide each contested request on an individual basis, as opposed to approving or rejecting an overall request by either side.

Following the presentation of evidence, the arbitrator may indicate whether one or both sides should move away from their original position when they submit final offers on each issue. For example, the arbitrator could ask firefighters to scale back their request for a 9 percent pay raise by 2007, but also ask the city to budge on its refusal to raise pay.

The arbitration process is expected to last through the summer. An agreement outside of binding arbitration may be reached even up to 10 days after the final settlement is delivered to both parties.

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