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Tustin Declares an Impasse in Employee Contract Talks

Times Staff Writer

The city of Tustin declared an impasse Thursday in contract negotiations with its 150 city employees and is expected to do the same today when it meets with its 50 police officers.

The impasse--the first in at least a decade for the central Orange County community of 45,000 residents--means that a state mediator may have to be called in to help settle differences over pay and fringe benefits if the two sides cannot agree to return to the bargaining table.

Employees, in the meantime, are working under a month-to-month contract since their 2-year contract expired Dec. 31. Both sides had been in negotiations for 6 weeks when talks fell apart Thursday between the city and representatives of the Tustin general services employees.

A meeting was scheduled this morning with police officers but neither city officials nor employee negotiators expressed any confidence that those talks would not come to an impasse.

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John Adams, an El Toro-based labor negotiator for the city employees, said no work stoppages were being considered as a means of resolving this dispute.

“We’re still confident we’ll get everything worked out,” Adams said.

Mayor Ursula E. Kennedy said she remained hopeful that employees would return to the bargaining table soon “and say thank you for a very fair offer.”

The impasse was declared by city negotiators Thursday afternoon after the employees’ representatives rejected a contract package that called for an immediate 4.5% pay increase, plus smaller increases staggered over the next 2 years. The city termed that contract its final offer.

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Although the employees did not object to the overall amount of salary increase, Adams said, one key dispute is over a city proposal to make employees pay a larger share of rising medical insurance premiums.

City Manager William A. Huston said the city is merely trying to follow a nationwide movement by industry to keep down soaring insurance costs. Huston said the city wants to pay a flat rate for medical insurance, with the cost of future premium increases to be negotiated between the city and its employees.

Adams said the employees also believe they are being shortchanged vacation and sick days, as well as other fringe benefits, such as differential pay for swing shifts and graveyard work.

According to Adams’ analysis, Tustin’s municipal work force ranks near the bottom in salary and benefits when compared to 10 similar-size Orange County cities: Brea, Yorba Linda, Stanton, Buena Park, San Clemente, Fountain Valley, Cypress, Newport Beach, La Habra and Placentia.

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But a similar analysis conducted by the city has concluded that Tustin falls right in the middle of those cities, Huston said.

“We have historically targeted our employees to be in the median,” Huston said. “We may have one benefit a little high and one benefit a little low but our total compensation is at the median.”

Another point of contention is over the disciplinary appeals process, which now calls for Huston to consider all appeals. Adams said a flaw in that procedure is that Huston sometimes doesn’t even listen to the appeals himself, delegating that authority to an assistant.

“It would be like going to court, telling the court clerk your case and having the judge rule against you. It’s absurd,” said Adams, who added that employees want another avenue of appeal besides the city manager.

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Huston called the appeals argument a “smoke screen,” saying that there have been only three appeals brought to his level in the 8 years he has served as city manager.

“Why fix a problem that doesn’t exist?” Huston asked. “Historically, we (management and employees) have had a very stable relationship.”

Mayor Kennedy said Tustin has had no history of municipal labor unrest and blamed the current dispute on “miscommunication” between what the city is offering and what Adams is telling employees the city is offering.

Adams, however, accused city negotiators of the same thing, saying that they have not adequately informed the City Council about the elements of the contract dispute.

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Kennedy said she is confident the labor trouble would end as soon as employees recognize that the city, indeed, has good intentions toward them.

“Our employees are extremely important to us,” Kennedy said. “We would not want to do anything to upset them or the negotiations.”


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