Police benefits vote delayed once again

Police benefits vote delayed once again

CUMBERLAND - For the fifth time last Wednesday, Town Council members tabled action on an ordinance that imposes sweeping changes in pension benefits for unionized police officers.

Mayor Daniel McKee cited ongoing negotiations with union leaders and suggested putting the ordinance back on the agenda for Nov. 6.

And while a majority of councilors complied, four of the seven almost immediately signed a letter calling for an executive session to hear the update on police contract negotiations that McKee not only refused to give publicly but said he wouldn't provide in private, either.

Councilor Art Lambi told the mayor during the meeting, "I find it difficult to table this meeting to meeting. I, for one, am not interested in tabling this matter."

Even President James Higgins, who's generally an ally of McKee, warned, "If there's not substantial progress in two weeks, there's a pretty good chance we're going to vote on this."

It was on Aug. 21 when many of the town's police officers filled the back of the Town Council chamber and spoke passionately against an ordinance that alters pension arrangements to lower the taxpayers' annual commitment to the town-managed fund. Among the unilateral changes in the ordinance, new officers must participate in a defined contributions plan, rather than defined benefits, with a town contribution of 7 percent; retirees must serve 20 years and reach the age of 55; pensions would be based on earnings over five years rather than three.

That long hearing ended with Councilor Scott Schmitt suggesting a two-week cooling off period and renewed negotiating effort.

Two weeks stretched into a month and then almost two months, and now Schmitt is one of those calling for a progress report.

Last week, Lambi noted the council's finance subcommittee had recommended approval of the ordinance in August in a 3 to 0 vote. "It's time we finalized negotiations and moved forward," he said. But McKee was holding his cards close. He said, "I was charged with negotiating with police and that's what I'm doing."

Councilor Manuel DaCosta supported Lambi. "I agree at some point the council needs to be informed how negotiations are progressing. So if we table (the ordinance), can we have an update?"

Answered McKee, "When there's something to update, we'll call an executive session." For now, he said, indicating the room where closed-door sessions are held, "you'll get the same answer in there as you get out here. And the answer you'll get here is there is nothing is new to report. There's nothing to update that's substantive enough to warrant consideration of the council."

He did allow that negotiations are continuing although "some people may be more optimistic than others. But not a day that goes by that I don't spend hours on this," he said, noting much of the time in research and consulting with attorneys, not meeting with union leaders.

"I wouldn't be telling you it makes sense to table if I didn't think so," McKee said.

The ordinance was written to take effect on Jan. 1, 2014. McKee is defending his silence after police officers bitterly complained that McKee, in presenting Cumberland's plan to state administrators, has made the town's position very public, contrary to the usual rules of contract negotiations.

Lambi told McKee he'd get two other councilors to sign with him on a request for a special executive session, a promise he made good on the following day, when he found three others.

The letter to Town Clerk Sandra Giovanelli the next day was signed by the three Republicans - Lambi, Scott Schmitt and Jeff Kearns - along with Democrat Manuel DaCosta who's often not on board with his fellow Democrats, including the mayor.

Lambi later told The Breeze he wants to include in that meeting the attorney working with the town on the pension issue, Joseph Rodio.

McKee told The Breeze he anticipates a closed-door session with the attorney and councilors on Nov. 6, the date of the next Town Council meeting. Between now and then, there might be progress to update, he said.

In related action, or inaction, last week, Town Council members declined to give McKee the up or down vote he was seeking on a plan to move current police out of the troublesome town-owned pension plan and into the state plan, called Municipal Employees Retirement System or MERS.

Town Council members referred the question to the council's finance subcommittee after citing again skimpy information about current contract negotiations with the police.

Lambi in particular complained he didn't have enough information about the impact on the town's budget.

Shifting into MERS will require General Assembly approval, something that wouldn't happen until well into the new year, Higgins pointed out.