COSTA MESA — The city has retained a labor lawyer to negotiate with employee groups – a departure from the way it once negotiated with workers.
"This is a way to even the field for the taxpayer, hiring a negotiator," said city spokesman Bill Lobdell.
The city announced Monday that it had hired, at $300 an hour, Richard Kreisler of the Los Angeles-based Liebert Cassidy Whitmore law firm.
Kreisler will handle contract negotiations with Costa Mesa's several employee groups.
Costa Mesa previously relied on its former administrative services director, Steve Mandoki, to negotiate with employees.
City Chief Executive Tom Hatch sent letters to all six employee groups last month asking them to formally negotiate with the city. Three haven't responded; two said they were willing to negotiate formally or informally, and the third said it would negotiate if the city rescinded layoff notices to workers facing possible outsourcing.
The city is looking to create a second pension tier for new hires, so the City Council is looking for ways to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table.
City Attorney Tom Duarte will publicly detail each side's proposals after a round of discussions; the council could soon consider a "cooling off" period after a contract is tentatively agreed upon that would give residents a month to review the terms before the city gives its approval.
"Now, giving the public more time to review and comment on the agreements once they are reached is a great idea and makes a lot of sense," Orange County Employees Assn. spokeswoman Jennifer Muir wrote in an email. "We strongly support transparency."
Public employees' pay, pension and health benefits were posted on the city's website earlier this year with workers identified by name.
"The process of granting benefits is derived from tax dollars," Councilman Steve Mensinger said. "It's our intent to continue to allow the public to see what councils grant to their different employee groups, and do it in the way to give the public adequate time to comment before the contracts are voted on."
Costa Mesa city employee contracts are publicly available through the city's website and at City Hall. But the council's new direction would brighten the spotlight at a time when trust between the current council and some of its employee associations is thin.
"We, at the Costa Mesa Firefighters Assn., don't have anything to hide," said CMFA President Tim Vasin. "We've been up front, I should say, for the last three years that we're always willing to sit down and work on solutions. We will continue to do that, whether it's city employee negotiators or they hire a negotiator … we will continue to sit down and discuss options in the best interest of the city."
Costa Mesa firefighters are informally negotiating with the city over pension contributions. Per their contract, firefighters are contributing 5% toward their pension, but that expires in November. The city was seeking to extend those payments until the entire contract expires in 2014; firefighters countered with extending the pay another three months while the city explores contracting with the Orange County Fire Authority.
Duarte announced the details of the Fire Department's negotiations last week. Muir said the details are a new wrinkle in the process that looks more political than practical.
"Providing a blow-by-blow account of what's happening at the bargaining table may promote each side grandstanding to their respective constituencies instead of reaching an agreement through compromise and respect," she wrote. "Grandstanding is the very problem that has taxpayers so frustrated with the politicians in Congress right now. So anything that inhibits bargaining from being a collaborative, solution-oriented process requires very careful consideration."
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer countered: "The public should have an idea of where we're at and where we're going."
Jason Chamness, president of the Costa Mesa Police Assn., added in an email: "Transparency is great as long as all the facts are presented. Presenting only part of the information can be misleading and create more confusion."