Revamped Union Bill Sideswipes Local Governments

April 9, 2013

Critics say the bill sidesteps local control, which may not fly with Governor John Hickenlooper, a former mayor (AEI Image)

DENVER– Formerly known as The Firefighters Collective Bargaining Act, Senate Bill 25 has been repackaged as The Colorado Firefighters Safety Act to appeal to Gov. John Hickenlooper – and avoid his veto.

The revised measure no longer mandates collective bargaining, but critics say the bill tramples the ballot process in local communities.  That may not fly with Hickenlooper, a former mayor.

“We have not gotten confirmation that the governor is in full support of the new Senate Bill 25,” admitted Rep. Angela Williams (D-Denver), a co-sponsor with Sen. Lois Tochtrop.

SB 25 was restructured in a collaborative effort with stakeholders, said Williams, who named the Colorado Professional Firefighters union and the governor’s staff.

Yet, stakeholders, such as the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association and the Colorado Municipal League, were excluded and unaware of the revisions until Monday when the bill was heard by theHouse State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee.

“When does a bill about collaboration not include collaboration with those that it affects?” asked Kevin Bommer of the Colorado Municipal League.

Westminster Fire Chief Doug Hall, representing the city and the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association, asked why the bill’s sponsors didn’t share copies of the revisions before the hearing.

In February, Hickenlooper indicated he might veto the bill because it mandated collective bargaining between firefighters and local jurisdictions. Former Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed a similar firefighter union bill sponsored by Tochtrop in 2009.

Currently, the question of collective bargaining is placed on the election ballot, either by petition or a city council vote, and ultimately decided by voters – and not mandated by the state.

The bill was amended to require a “meet and confer process” to engage firefighters and their employers in conversations about public safety issues – but not compensation. Unresolved issues or pay increases could be decided by voters.

If firefighters want collective bargaining, the bill would cut a path to the ballot without having to collect several hundred citizens’ signatures on petitions or gain city council approval.

According to the revised bill, the question would be placed on the ballot with 75 percent approval of the “bargaining unit” of fulltime employed firefighters.

“I’m stunned by that,” declared Bommer. “The goal of this is to assure an expedited map to state mandated collective bargaining that goes around local control and local voters.”

“This bill circumvents the privileges and the rights of local voters to determine policy within their respective fire districts,” said Hall.

“I think this is bound to be litigated,” said Rep. Tim Dore (R-Elizabeth), particularly on the issue of violating Home Rule.

Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton), an attorney, said, “Home Rule doesn’t stop us from being able to legislate collective bargaining in this bill.”

If passed and signed into law, the bill would apply to all fire protection districts with two or more employees in the state. The bargaining unit would not include part-time employees and volunteer firefighters who are not included in the bill.

Denver Fire Department Captain Kevin Duncan, a member of the Colorado Professional Firefighters Union, said the bill is about safety and protection of firefighters and their families.

Collective bargaining, he said, allows firefighters to work as a team, improve safety, upgrade equipment and communicate concerns. During the recession, he said, the union made concessions with the city ofDenverin order to avoid layoffs in the department.

“If safety is truly an issue, it should be an issue for all – not a select group,” said Hall. Volunteer and part-time firefighters put their lives on the line, he said, but they are overlooked.

SB 25 passed the committee on a party line vote, 7 – 4, and will now be considered in the House.

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