Unionizing move fans political fires
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
MADEIRA BEACH -- With a heated election under way, support staff employees are moving to unionize for the first time in this beach's 56-year history.
Unions are nothing new on the Pinellas beaches -- Madeira Beach firefighters belong to the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters and St. Pete Beach alone has three unions -- but the timing and circumstances of this one are getting attention from political candidates who say employee morale is an issue at City Hall.
"I think there's a certain amount of resentment among the employees of the way they've been treated," Commissioner Charles Parker said.
Parker, who recently failed to persuade other commissioners to take a close look at the performance of City Manager Jim Madden, places blame firmly on Madden. Other commissioners point elsewhere -- even at themselves -- for an explanation of why employees are forming a union.
Mayor Tom DeCesare insists that Madden is simply caught in the middle. He believes the trouble originated last fall, when the City Commission divided over pay increases for some city staff.
The proposal would have raised the pay ceiling for some employees who had worked for the city for several years and were at or near the top of their pay scales. A survey of similar-sized cities found Madeira Beach employees were underpaid.
"It's not Jim Madden. He has nothing to do with it," said DeCesare, who voted for the pay scale adjustment with Commissioner Doreen Moore. Parker and Commissioner Roger Koske voted against it, and Commissioner Jan Sturgis was absent from the meeting. "They feel threatened somehow that the city and its commission can't satisfy their needs, and so they feel that maybe it's better for them to have a union."
The city received notice last week from the Public Employees Relations Commission, a state body that works to resolve labor disputes in the public sector, that Madeira Beach employees are considering joining Communications Workers of America.
Of the 35 city employees eligible to join the union, 33 indicated an interest, according to PERC.
Madden, city manager in Madeira Beach less than a year, said he is unsure why employees are motivated to unionize, but he is aware of the rumors he must combat at City Hall. He said rumors that he told employees at a staff meeting that he plans to "clean house" in Madeira Beach are "absolutely false," and he says he also has heard the one about why he took the job in the first place.
"I've heard that what I'm supposed to be doing is putting all these new regulations in place, and then go work for a developer," Madden said. "I can dispel that right now."
Madden said he is working on several projects to improve communication at City Hall, from the creation of an employee advisory committee to a program called "Ask the Manager," in which employees can submit questions for Madden that he will answer in the employee newsletter.
The move to unionize accompanies this election season's dramatic politics in Madeira Beach. All five elected officials now in office were elected unopposed, but this year's race has drawn six candidates for three seats. Two of the challengers have been involved in lawsuits against the city.
Even Parker, unopposed in his five previous bids for office, has an opponent this year. Parker, who often finds himself on the losing end of 4-1 votes, says Madden's firing of his assistant, Judy Markham, brought to the surface many of the employees' frustrations.
Madden fired Markham because he believed she was using political influence to try to keep her job. Markham appealed to the City Commission-appointed Civil Service Commission, which disagreed with Madden and recommended 5-0 that Markham be reinstated.
About two dozen people attended Markham's hearing. Half were city employees.
"I think the way in which (Madden) handled the Judy Markham case resulted in a great deal of discomfort among the employees and a tremendous lowering of morale," Parker said, "and I think this union is a direct result of the way in which he handled that case."
City Commissioner Roger Koske said he has received numerous phone calls from people who purport to be city employees but will not leave their names. Once, Koske said, he pressed *69 after hearing from a tipster, and the phone rang at a Redington Shores bar.
"Somebody stirred it up and figured they could get a better deal going with the union," said Koske, who said he was represented by a union for several years when he was a firefighter in Illinois. "It's certainly one or two people. I think it'll cost them in the long run."
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