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By Carmen Ensinger
At a special Personnel Committee meeting called Monday afternoon, Greene County Board Chairman Mark Strang told members of the Greene County Board that he had asked Greene County State’s Attorney Caleb Briscoe to look into finding an outside firm that would handle union negotiations between the County and its employees.
“It worries me that we have spent all this time on negotiations and there is this miscommunication and I’m trying to think of a different way we can do it,” Strang said. “I know you all are busy with your jobs and we spend a lot of time with meetings at night so I asked Caleb to look into finding a firm that would handle negotiations and I was hoping it would take the personal part away from us being the adversaries.”
Courthouse and Highway Department employees have been working without a contract since January when their previous contract expired. Board members Andrea Schnelten and Chris Elliott were appointed to the negotiating team and negotiated a contract between the Steelworkers Union, which represents both the courthouse and highway department, but after the union accepted the negotiated contract, the board rejected the contract 4-3 not once, but twice.
The second time the board rejected the contract, both Schnelten and Elliott said they were done and that someone else on the board could step up and continue with the negotiations.
The firm Briscoe reached out to is a law firm in Carbondale.
“They basically just do labor relations in counties and municipalities,” he said. “I was able to talk with him towards the end of last week but he wanted a copy of the contract that expired, which I didn’t have and the new one which we didn’t pass to see what the difference was.”
Elliot asked Briscoe if he knew what the cost might be to the county to hire a law firm to do the negotiations. Briscoe said he didn’t feel comfortable talking about numbers in open session.
“This is my issue,” Elliott said. “We (Elliott and Schnelten) spent months negotiating this contract and after every negotiation session we came back to the board and we talked about it. No questions were asked during those meetings nor were any concerns raised.”
The board voted 4-3 against the contract at the Sept. 8 meeting and then again at a special meeting on Sept. 22. In addition to Schnelten and Elliott, the only other board member voting for the contract was Regan Joehl. The other board members, Earlene Castleberry, Joyce Clark, Christie Lake and Mark Strang all voted against it. Their reason for voting against it was because of the 40-hour work week clause and because it would cost the county too much money. Courthouse employees currently work 36-hour work weeks.
“On the heels of that, the contract was voted down under the guise of fiscal responsibility, but yet you would be willing to pay a firm to do the job that we were elected and are already being paid to do,” Elliott said. “Just because the people who are sitting here who wanted to pick apart how it was negotiated are now not willing to shoulder the responsibility of negotiating themselves. That is the issue that I have.”
Schnelten agreed 100 percent.
“It is not about our time or our jobs,” she said. “Paying a lawyer to do what we were elected to do is not the way to do it. I don’t think the citizens of Greene County would see their tax dollars being spent this way because others on this board don’t want to step up and do their jobs.”
Schnelten also said that some board members claimed they were not informed during the negotiation process.
“The whole point was, if you voted it down because you were not informed, we are giving you the opportunity to step up and inform yourselves and do the process of negotiating,” she said. “So it is a copout to go and hire a lawyer to do a job that I think we (Elliott and Schnelten) did really well. We should not be hiring a third party firm to do what we were elected to do.”
As for the reason they stepped down, Elliott said it wasn’t because they were tired.
“It wasn’t because we were too tired and it wasn’t because we didn’t have the time,” he said. “It was because our time got turned into a waste of time because of the end result.”
That is why they decided to give other board members a shot at it.
“So, the point was, if we were going to be undermined and we were going to be questioned because someone thought they could do this job better, then we wanted those individuals to step up and see what it was like to be a part of the process,” Schnelten said. “Here is your chance to do the job because that is what we were elected to do and what we are getting paid to do.”
Castleberry spoke up in favor of hiring the independent firm.
“Well, I know in the past, different boards have hired an independent person to handle negotiations,” she said. “I guess I don’t have a problem hiring someone who is wholly independent who is going to look at both sides with new eyes and try to resolve it. I think it is our responsibility to get this resolved.”
Schnelten asked what they were trying to resolve.
“We are at a point where there is nothing to negotiate,” she said. “They have already voted to approve the contract. They have already made their stance. We lost our opportunity to change our minds so now we are in a whole different ball game.”
Money seems to be the key issue, and Schnelten and Elliiott seem to have a valid argument.
“I just find it terrible that you were nickel and diming us things and then you want to go spend thousands of dollars to pay someone else to do this – that doesn’t save the county money,” Schnelten said. “I just don’t agree with it at all. The whole reason that you wouldn’t pass it (contract) was because of money, so then we are just going to spend more money on it.”
There are a total of seven board members and Schnelten said surely two of the five remaining can step up and take over negotiations.
“We just wanted one of our fellow board members to step up because if we were told what we were doing was not correct, we felt like somebody should take the reins and try it if they thought they could do it better,” she said. “We didn’t mean go out and find a third party to do it and pay them. It is not fair to the taxpayers that you should pass the buck when you have two capable people sitting on this board capable of doing this job.”