ACC commissioners turn down collective bargaining for firefighters
On Tuesday, as the 3.5 million-plus votes in Georgia's U.S. Senate race were being counted, a crowd packed city hall to focus on nine other important voters – the members of the Athens-Clarke County Commission, who slogged through a nearly six-hour meeting.
Much of the meeting was taken up by comment – both from the public and from commissioners – about a proposal to allow ACC firefighters, who are already in a union, to collectively bargain with the county government for their salaries and benefits.
Emily Thompson, president of the Athens local of the International Association of Firefighters was one of numerous firefighters who showed up to urge lawmakers to pass the measure.
"[This proposal] encourages equitable structure which firefighters can voice their opinion and know that their voice is valued," Thompson said. "This reduces attrition and helps retain experienced firefighters."
District 6 Commissioner Jesse Houle was a supporter of the proposal.
"To me this is really quite simple," they said. "Do we believe in worker empowerment? Is that one of our values as a government and a community?
But other commissioners spoke against it. District 4’s Allison Wright said that firefighters, like any county employees, can always take their concerns - about any issue - to commissioners directly.
"We are here to hear what you have to say," Wright said. "If the chain of command is not working for you, for your personnel issues, your budget issues, you need to let us know."
District 9’s Ovita Thornton seemed to chide firefighters for not coming to the commission with their concerns.
"We have had issues and conversations about our Police Department. We've had issues and conversations about our Sheriff's Department. We've had issues and conversations about EMS and corrections. We've had conversations about even public health. This is the first time I have heard anything from the firefighters," Thornton said.
Both a measure officially recognizing the union and an ordinance directing county staff to bargain with the union failed. The resolution’s fate came down to a veto from mayor Kelly Girtz.
Girtz highlighted what he characterized as a number of improvements to salaries and benefits for public safety employees.
"We have also been able to allocate funds for both public safety workers and other municipal employees to see very significant pay raises, and we're in the midst of some conversations right now about additional benefits," Girtz said. "That's really where I want to see the bulk of this conversation to continue until the new year."
Girtz said he would be happy to put a committee to work on how county leadership can engage with employees, but he wants that discussion to include more than just the county's firefighters.
"I want to see that be a broad based phenomenon because I have experienced the fracturing and the atomization that can happen when you don't have the broad conversations, but you have narrow conversations."