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Nisswa City Council learns about union process

The Nisswa City Council learned Wednesday, Sept. 4, that eight supervisory employees are being proposed to be part of the Minnesota Public Employees Association (MNPEA).

According to the MNPEA website, that group was established to provide public employees in Minnesota with an alternative to the standard national and international unions. While most groups MNPEA represents are from law enforcement or corrections, it does represent the city of East Bethel and the city of Jordan clerical workers.

Steve Qualley, an attorney who is part of the firm the city recently hired as city attorney, told the council during a budget meeting that the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) will determine who the potential members of the bargaining unit will be, and will then notify those potential members and hold an election.

Some city employees petitioned the BMS to form a collective bargaining unit last month after the city council suspended police chief Craig Taylor. The council offered Taylor a resignation settlement a day later, and then reinstated him nearly a week later after learning the council couldn’t make any staffing changes until the petition for unionization was settled.

The council also switched city attorneys after reinstating the chief.

The positions identified to be part of MNPEA are the city clerk, police chief, fire chief, planning and zoning administrator, Spirits manager, Pickle Factory manager, parks director and public works director. If the MNPEA agrees, the BMS will set up the election. If the MNPEA has a different list of positions, the BMS will encourage negotiation or will step in to make a determination.

So it’s unclear how long the process will take.

Jim Gammello, also an attorney with the firm the city hired as city attorney, warned the council members that they can’t intimidate anyone regarding the union.

“Don’t make promises, be intimidating — anything that could be seen as a form of manipulation,” he said.

Gammello reminded the council that a status quo order was issued until the unionization request is settled, meaning the council is to leave staffing as it is.

Gammello advised the council to do what it has done in the past — while it can’t change working conditions, hours or terms of employment, the council can budget or offer pay raises as it has in the past.

“Do it in the shadow of that status quo order and ask how will that be interpreted, how will we support it and justify it,” Gammello said. “Don’t violate that order.”

When told that Ron Bialke, manager of the Spirits municipal liquor store, is preparing to retire so had included a new assistant manager position in the budget, Gammello advised the council not to hire that position now, though the city could budget for it. Hiring an assistant manager could be interpreted as stacking the deck, Gammello said.

Besides discussing that position, later in the budget meeting, after the attorneys had left, mayor Brian Lehman proposed adding $23,500 for a part-time police clerk position, and council member Jan Pierce proposed adding $15,000 to the planning and zoning budget for a possible city administrator role. Lehman also proposed increasing legal fees to $25,000 for upcoming issues.

When asked about normal raises, Gammello said if that’s what the council has done in the past, it won’t violate the status quo order. The council can’t penalize either union or non-union employees.

“Be consistent with what you have done in the past,” he said.

Gammello also gave advice on how the council should conduct meetings so as to keep control and decorum, and he advised the council to follow its personnel policy when dealing with personnel issues.

“It’s important to understand how that process is supposed to work,” he said, noting personnel policies have a progressive discipline approach that must be followed.

He told the council not to micromanage or intimidate employees, and said no one council member can hire or fire an employee.

He told council members to call one of its attorneys to guide them through the process of anything that can be viewed as disciplinary.

Lehman said he wanted everyone on the council to read and sign the personnel policy for accountability.

Gammello said, “People matter, and people in the community need to know you are following proper procedure and protocol.”