This Week in the Mercury


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Leonard and Fritz: Contretemps Part Two...

Posted by Matt Davis on Wed, Jul 1, 2009 at 4:51 PM

Watch out: City Commissioners Randy Leonard and Amanda Fritz are butting heads again after their last contretemps in early May.

With this morning's council session taking all of an hour (seriously, what's up with the mayor being "out of town" the day the federal transportation secretary comes to town!? Who does it take to get him to cancel his travel plans? Joe Biden?! Although oddly, it's not like the mayor to turn down a photo opportunity...), I decided to busy myself with wonkish matters: Namely, trying to assess City Commissioner Amanda Fritz's political impact at city hall.

Specifically, I was curious to ask City Commissioner Randy Leonard about his feelings on Fritz's resolution last week to freeze merit pay raises for non-union employees. You may recall that Leonard greeted the proposal with characteristic "run into a burning building" enthusiasm last week:
2f00/1246488276-1245877248-leonard.jpg

Scratch that.

"The way it was presented was misleading," says Leonard, who has been doing some research on Fritz's proposal, suspecting that "this isn't going to just die," and that Fritz may bring it back in the next budget cycle.

"The most cursory research would indicate that the $2.8million savings are overrated by 40 percent," Leonard continues. He's been asking the city's Office of Management and Finance (OMF) to figure out how many of the city's 1500 non-union employees would in fact qualify for a merit increase, and it turns out, 40 percent of them are already at the top of their pay scale, and wouldn't qualify, he says.

"I'm suspecting that the actual savings are something short of $1million," says Leonard, who wants to have OMF run the numbers next week, to be sure.

It seems Leonard thinks Fritz may have been indulging in politicking by bringing forward the ordinance.

"The more cynical observers have suggested it's the great political, 'hey, any time you go after public employees'," he says. "If you read the blogs, it's like hey, they're public employees, right on, go after 'em, and I just don't like that kind of use of dedicated hard-working people in order to further a political agenda."

"It's popular to say or imply that public employees make too much money," Leonard continues. "That's always resonated well. But when you're in these positions, then it is unfair not to at minimum analyze the basics of that kind of belief if you're going to vote to do anything to curb those individuals' compensation."

"Amanda either knew what I realized after doing the most cursory research, or she didn't do the work necessary, and that by itself is troubling," says Leonard. "I do not like even the perception that we are using employees that do not have the benefit of representation as political pawns in a wider discussion."

Read the response from Fritz's office, after the jump.

"I'm as good as anyone else at trying to articulate good political positions," Leonard says. "But I hope I've never done that at the expense of people who can't defend themselves."

Leonard says he is happy to have a broader discussion including a pay freeze for union employees as well as non-represented employees. But he seems surprised that Fritz has proposed the ordinance without her usual fervor for due process.

"I find no small amount of irony that as opposed to some issues that some members of council think should go through an exhaustive public process, this had none," he says. "And I found that troubling, when it affected people's ability to pay their rent, raise their children and live their lives."

Two weeks ago, Leonard announced he may have to fire up to 150 staff from his Bureau of Development Services because of the recession. The remaining employees agreed to take a two week unpaid furlough at last week's council session, and for unrepresented employees, Fritz's proposed pay freeze would amount to an 8% pay cut, says Leonard. When Fritz came to Leonard with the suggestion, he was in the middle of drafting a letter explaining the layoffs, he says.

"It didn't hit me right," says Leonard. "I was like, what? I'm in the middle of doing this and you're proposing that?"

Was Leonard surprised that Fritz would propose a council resolution she thought she might lose?

"There are certain things I feel strong enough about that I'd want to have a vote on them even if I was the only one to vote," he says. "For example, my efforts to withdraw us from the Joint Terrorism Task Force, I was willing to file that just to have the discussion about what I felt was inappropriate use of our police officers by the federal government. But unless Amanda feels like that about this issue, I think because of the real impact it had on people, I guess I'm just failing to see what principle that was standing up for, given the inequities of such a resolution passing."

Fritz's chief of staff, Tom Bizeau, says his office plans to continue discussions with other commissioners to try to get the pay freeze proposal to fly. "We haven't given up on it," he says.

Commissioner Fritz was visible in her office as Bizeau responded to Leonard's remarks, but she didn't come out to talk with the Mercury. This is the usual approach to the Mercury's inquiries from Fritz: both she and fellow commissioner Nick Fish generally dispatch their chiefs of staff to spar with the press. Meanwhile Commissioners Dan Saltzman, Randy Leonard and even Mayor Sam Adams himself are more accessible for conversations. I'm not sure why the disparity exists but suspect it may be related to the commissioners' relative political experience. I certainly make every effort never to waste a commissioner's precious time when asking questions, but surely five minutes every couple of weeks isn't too much to ask?

"I don't know about how he runs the numbers," said Bizeau, responding to Leonard's accusations of inaccuracy over the potential cost savings. "We got our numbers from the Office of Management and Finance and they know what they're doing."

"OMF did say the numbers could change," Bizeau siad.

Is Fritz using non-represented employees as political pawns?

"We looked at the whole issue in relationship to money and the city's budget," Bizeau responded. "We didn't want to make it personal with the employees. Indeed a lot of employees have said they approved of our approach."

Represented or unrepresented employees? "All kinds," said Bizeau. "About a two to one ratio in favor."

Is this an attempt to pressure the unions to agree to a pay freeze? "Not at all," he said.

Is it going to divide non union employees from represented employees? "There are union employees and there are non-union employees," said Bizeau. "They have different requirements. That's the bottom line. There's no intention to divide. We want to work together, actually, and I think there's a lot of union employees who understand that."

Commissioner Dan Saltzman responded, too, to Leonard's "political pawns" statement.

"Ideally I think we should look at freezing step increases for union members as well as non-represented employees," he said. "That truly is the focus, and not using them as pawns."

"My thinking is that we're going to face greater cuts next year," said Saltzman. "I'm not talking about any political agenda. I'm thinking about balancing the budget in a way that will support basic services."

Is it difficult for the city to negotiate a pay freeze with the unions?

"Yes, it's difficult," said Saltzman. "But the county worked something out with one of its largest unions, and we are going into negotiations with our unions next year. I'm open to the idea. I like the idea of savings being used to hire people back, too. I think that in a period of sacrifice, it's one of the things we should look at."

It looks like Leonard was right on at least one point: It doesn't look like this issue is just going to die.

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