SEAT drivers' union says more COG input could be a good thing

Preston - The board of directors of Southeast Area Transit Wednesday continued its criticism of proposed legislation that would give the region's council of governments more authority over SEAT, but the president of the union that represents SEAT's drivers said he would welcome the changes.

Jaroslaw "Jerry" Pizunski, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1209, said morale among the company's 36 drivers has been "very low" since SEAT laid off five drivers in February 2011. Pizunski said the union expressed its discontent in March by unanimously casting a vote of no confidence against SEAT general manager Ella Bowman.

At a board meeting Wednesday, Chairman Paul Altman called the proposed legislation "very political" and criticized the timing of the announcement. He said the board only had 24 hours to review the proposal before the COG voted to accept it at its meeting last week.

Under the legislation, the COG would have the power to add three members to the SEAT's board. It would have the authority to approve the appointment of the SEAT general manager and to ratify any contract in excess of $100,000. The proposal also called for a yearly annual audit by a certified public accountant.

SEAT serves nine towns in the region and the chief officials from 20 towns in the area comprise the COG.

Pizunski and two other drivers who attended the board meeting Wednesday said the COG proposal would present a welcome change and would force the audit, which the union has sought for several months. The legislation must go before the General Assembly for approval.

"Why don't they want it? There must be a reason," Pizunski said. "Why are you afraid of someone looking over your shoulder to make sure you're doing a good job?"

Board Treasurer F. Kent Sistare said during Wednesday's meeting that many of the perceived inadequacies with SEAT stem from a lack of funding. COG's proposal does not offer a solution to the lack of funding, Sistare said, so he hopes it will be killed during the legislative session.

Several members of the board also questioned the COG's motives for proposing such changes.

Board Vice Chairman Angelo Yeit speculated that the move for the changes began after SEAT had a diesel fuel spill at its Route 12 facility. SEAT is currently involved in legal proceedings with the state regarding the incident.

"We had a spill. I'm sure that's what started it," Yeitz said. "We couldn't really talk about some (legal) things that went on in executive session. I'm sure that's what started the ball rolling. There were facts that we couldn't bring to them."

The SEAT driver's union last year won an arbitration hearing increasing pay raises and driver benefits. The layoffs followed a short time later in part because the state funding SEAT had received dropped considerably, Bowman said at the time.

According to statistics made available at the meeting Wednesday, SEAT had expenses of more than $6 million in the most recent fiscal year but brought in revenue of only about $5.5 million. About 70 percent of its revenue - about $3.8 million - came from the state. About 19 percent came from fares.

SEAT's member towns are East Lyme, Griswold, Groton, Ledyard, Montville, New London, Norwich, Stonington and Waterford. Bowman said Wednesday Waterford has not paid its latest bill to SEAT of about $5,800.

SEAT also held a public hearing Wednesday on a proposed 25-cent fare increase on all fixed bus routes. No one attended the hearing. The new fares are proposed to take effect in March. The board is expected to consider a vote on the increased fares at its next meeting.

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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