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Commissioners postpone vote on firefighters union

Firefighters survey tornado damages in downtown Mayfield, Kentucky.
Brett Carlsen
Getty Images
Firefighters survey tornado damages in downtown Mayfield, Kentucky.

It will be at least another two months before Athens-Clarke County commissioners vote on allowing members of the firefighters’ union to collectively bargain with the county for wages, benefits, and workplace conditions.

A similar proposal came in front of lawmakers late last year but was vetoed by Mayor Kelly Girtz. Commissioners brought the measure back in a different form in the hopes of gaining a veto-proof majority.

During their voting meeting on Tuesday, commissioners heard over an hour of public comment – all in favor of the move – from both firefighters and their supporters.

Emily Thompson is the president of the Athens firefighters’ local.

"The fact of the matter is that firefighters are asking for title 25 because it exists in Georgia State statute and we are taking advantage of it," said Thompson.

While Georgia law generally doesn’t allow public employees to organize, there is an exception for firefighters.

Nate Bailey is President of the Professional Firefighters of Georgia.

"If you pass it tonight, if you vote yes on this item, these firefighters are going to walk out of there, they're going to be the best recruitment you've ever had, and that's not going to cost you a dime," said Bailey.

Bailey told commissioners that Athens firefighters, and the statewide organization, were committed to working with the county government.

"And with the mediation act, let's say we don't agree, we go to mediation, said Bailey. "We don't want to do that because we'd have to pay for half of it, so we're going to find a way to come to some agreement and if we don't , the mediation act is over; no forced contract."

Thompson, the local president, framed the issue around public safety and workers’ rights.

"At the end of the day, your vote comes down to whether you believe workers deserve a right to advocate for themselves in a field of which you all hired us to be experts," said Thompson.

Supporters of the proposal say that firefighters have important concerns that aren’t being addressed, including aging equipment and a staffing shortage. Christopher Dorsey is a Lieutenant in the ACC Fire Department.

"As you know, we just had a microburst, basically tornado come through and there was a lot of firefighters out there, just in that one area," said Dorsey. "But we're down a lot of firefighters, imagine if that storm was worse and we didn't have all those resources."

After the public comment and a brief break, commissioners spent another 45 minutes discussing the issue. District 6 Commissioner Jesse Houle supports the measure.

"I don't want us to shy away from the reality that collective bargaining is of course part of this, but to also highlight that striking can't be," said Houle. "Striking is, you know, disallowed within title 25."

However, District 5’s Dexter Fisher introduced a motion to table the proposal for two more months and to have a work session in early May to provide more information to some commissioners who are still unsure.

"I need more information," said Fisher. "If our equipment is that bad I need to know that and I need to know why and if we're not recruiting or retaining firefighters I need to know why."

After some intense procedural wrangling over whether commissioners could direct the county manager to invite members of the firefighters’ union at the May work session, Fisher’s proposal to table the measure for two months passed unanimously. Commissioners will revisit the issue in early June.

Commissioners also postponed a vote on a potential housing development off Newton Bridge Road. Developers are seeking a zoning change in order to build over 200 single family homes on a currently undeveloped parcel.

But, in advance of Tuesday's meeting, representatives of the developer asked commissioners to hold off for a month to allow them more time to tweak the plan.

Newly-sworn in Commissioner Melissa Link was critical of the current plan.

"There's real potential for some highly beneficial mixed income and mixed use development out there and this is not it," said Link. "This is straight up rezone to RS 25 without even a site plan. That's exactly the kind of homogeneous lowish density sprawl development that kind of got us into the mess we're in today."

Commissioners are expected to take up the zoning change again in early May.

Another zoning issue passed handily, however. Commissioners unanimously approved a request from the Athens Land Trust to build two apartment buildings with a total of 46 units and 86 bedrooms.

Heather Benham is the Land Trust’s executive director.

"If you approve this rezoning, we will be submitting an application for 46 units of rental housing that will rent to families making 50, 60 and 70 percent of the area median income," said Benham.

In other commission business, lawmakers approved allocation of $500,000 in federal money to six local non-profits for youth development and violence prevention activities.

Martin Matheny is WUGA's Program Director and a host and producer of our local news program 'Athens News Matters.' He started at WUGA in 2012 as a part-time classical music host and still hosts WUGA's longest-running local program 'Night Music' which is heard on WUGA and GPB Classical. He lives in Normaltown with his wife, Shaye and dog, Murphy.