IAFF, city council battle in University City as elections loom
UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. — University City City Council candidate Jeff Hales decided to run because he believes the attitude and behavior of certain city council members has gotten out of hand. The International Association of Firefighters Local 2665 (IAFF) and Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) endorsed Hales in Ward 1, Dennis Fuller in Ward 2, and Bwayne Smotherson in Ward 3 on Feb. 27 because they feel council members have become bullies. It’s the first time both unions have collaborated in University City.
One particular event that IAFF Vice President Kurt Becker uses an example of this bullying is when Ward 1 Council Member Stephen Kraft politically threatened Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City.
“Steve Kraft is just an insidious, mean, condescending, nasty, angry little man,” Becker said.
Ellinger’s wife, Linda Locke, wanted to run for City Council in Ward 2. Kraft told Ellinger that if Linda ran against his ally he would find candidate to run against Ellinger. Since then, Ellinger has dropped out of reelection for health reasons.
“I believe you can tell the character of a person by how they act outside of public scrutiny. We all want to be represented by people of good character,” Ellinger said. “Steve became a bully on the phone and I believe voters should take into account this kind of behavior when they make their decisions in April. The tone and substance of his comments revealed a penchant toward thuggish and manipulative behavior, which I believe has no place in public policy.”
Becker and Locke confirm this story. Kraft denied a conversation with Ellinger about his state representative race ever took place.
“I don’t run candidates,” he said.
“I’ve known him for 40 years. He’s as straight and honest a man as there is,” Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said of Ellinger. “There is not a more honorable person in the legislature.”
To Hales, the feeling that the council was acting as aggressor was affirmed when one of Kraft’s supporters tried to hold him off the ballot back in January.
To Becker, this belief was affirmed when University City, through it’s attorney Katie Forester, sent a memo to the union on March 4 saying the city “would control overtime and the necessity of employees working overtime.”
Becker said the city’s attorney sent an earlier memo restricting overtime and believes it was done in retaliation for endorsing candidates against three city council incumbents.
U City’s position is that negotiations were ongoing and have nothing to do with the city council. Becker himself produced a memo from Feb. 11 stating the city’s position on Fair Labor Standards Act necessary overtime. The FLSA dictates that local government employees receive compensation of at least time and half for time exceeding 40 hours per week.
The city’s position in the memos, supplied by both the city and Becker, is that the overtime they are addressing applies to things like jury duty and funeral leave, not work at the fire station.The city also states that it has the power to control overtime as dictated by the Memorandum of Agreement — agreed to by the city and IAFF.
“The union doesn’t think we have the right to control overtime,” University City Manager Lehman Walker said. “There’s no employee group where you’re entitled to overtime.”
Overtime is just one concern for the IAFF. The main issues for the organization, dating back to the beginning of negotiations with the city, are the payment of University City firefighters and the staffing of the department. Staffing and safety issues are the top police concerns, FOP vice president Curt Saitta said.
According to the U City budget, paramedic fire captains receive a minimum annual salary of $65,521 and a maximum salary of $76,708; paramedic firefighters receive a minimum salary of $53,795 and a maximum of $62,999. However, the city said the average salary for all firefighters, including captains, is $70,000 while the IAFF said most firefighters make figures on the lower end of the spectrum, closer to $50,000.
Mayor Shelley Welsch believes the IAFF and FOP concerns about salaries and being understaffed are both unfounded. Welsch said that the U City Fire Department has received a new pump, ambulance, and firehouse since she was elected in 2010. She went on to say that the demand for jobs at the U City Fire Department would indicate that firefighters are well compensated. She and Walker both said the city had 105 applications when they filled the most recent opening.
“There’s a lot of people in U City that would love to be making $70,000 plus benefits,” she said.
To Welsch, the political move of endorsing candidates is purely to get council members who will bend to IAFF wishes. She said members of the U City Police Department told her they did not know their FOP had endorsed candidates. The University City Police Department did not confirm this point instead saying that they “are not involved in the election at all.”
She said the salary and benefit increases requested by the firefighters would force the city to raise taxes.
Negotiations have not gone well. U City and the IAFF are on opposite sides of an open lawsuit, currently on the docket for the Missouri Court of Appeals. The IAFF is suing the city for bargaining in bad faith. The judge dismissed the case in District Court. The Special Master appointed by the district court found “the parties have bargained in good faith” and “agreed on approximately 50 percent of issues under consideration.”
Welsch was endorsed by the IAFF when she first ran for mayor. She claims Becker demanded she help with negotiations last summer and then threatened her with retaliation when she refused.
“It’s part of our city charter that the council will not get involved with negotiations,” Welsch said. “That’s the city manager’s job.”
Becker has a different story. He said he first reached out to Walker last April in order to get negotiations back going and then to Welsch.
“I asked Shelley as mayor to intervene,” Becker said. “I just insisted that the people that work for her behave appropriately.”
When asked about the situation with the firefighters, Kraft was defensive, asking why the topic was even newsworthy. He added that he was not involved with negotiations or the firefighters’ politics.
“That’s a conflict of interest for a candidate to take cash donations from a union that is annually negotiating with the city,” Kraft said.
Hales said he has never accepted donations from the IAFF and never asked for its endorsement.
Welsch did admit that certain council members are always in “attack mode” but that does not relate to the majority of the members.
“It is not uncivil. Period,” she said. “There are a lot of untruths being put out by the fire union. What the firefighters union is doing is disgraceful.”
Welsch and Becker will have to agree to disagree.
“These people feel like they don’t have to answer to anyone,” Becker said.
University City elections are scheduled for April 8.