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The public and this newspaper are at a significant disadvantage in judging whether the concession deal Mayor Finizio's administration reached with the New London firefighters' union is a good one and should be approved by the City Council. That is because the public has been kept in the dark about the details.
By a 3-3 vote the council on Monday failed to ratify the deal. Mayor Finizio says he needs the savings from the concessions to avoid layoffs. Twenty-five firefighters have received layoff notices. On Tuesday the mayor announced the layoff notices are extended to July 17 as he tries to pick up one more vote and get the concessions ratified. It is good to know the city will not be laying off a large portion of its fire department on the eve of OpSail.
It appears the concession deal would move firefighters from their 401(k) plans into the Connecticut Municipal Employee Retirement System (CMERS), a fixed pension system managed by the state with contributions from labor and municipalities. The change would have the advantage of encouraging some older and better paid firefighters to retire, saving on salaries.
In return for moving into the pension system firefighters would give up 2¼ percent and 2 percent raises due this month and again in January, agree to drop mandatory staffing levels from 18 to 16 per shift, and leave nine positions vacant, producing more savings.
To fully fund the union's entrance into the CMERS, a $14 million contribution is needed, $10 million transferred from the existing 401(k) plans and $4 million bonded by the city. Councilors in opposition have raised questions about the long-term costs of moving firefighters into the pension system and whether it is prudent to borrow to close the deal.
The council president, Michael Passero, had to sit out the vote because he is a firefighter and faces a conflict of interests. That raises another issue that we will address in future editorials and may have to be addressed by future charter commissions.
As for the issue at hand, the city should release the concession agreement. Without all the details, the public can only judge the council's action on the information that trickles out, which may not be the entire picture. Attorney Brian K. Estep, representing the city, rejected The Day request for a copy of the agreement between the city and the firefighters. Mr. Estep argues that the document is exempt from disclosure because it falls under "Records, reports and statements of strategy or negotiations with respect to collective bargaining."
We strongly disagree. The negotiations took place between the mayor's administration and the union. It resulted in an agreement. Presented to the council, the agreement becomes a piece of legislation and as such should be open to the public. It is not a statement of strategy. And since the council has no authority to negotiate with the union, the negotiation exemption does not pertain.
What this appears to be is an attempt to buy time. Keep the agreement and the council discussions behind closed doors until four votes are in place. Perhaps the administration fears releasing all details now could derail a deal. Or maybe the mayor is just getting bad advice. He is a lawyer, perhaps he should give the Freedom of Information Commission a call. Its advice may surprise him, or maybe not.
On balance, and only from what we know, it appears the deal will save the city more than it will cost well into the future. And certainly it is in the city's interest to avoid layoffs in this critical department. But it will be difficult to generate public confidence and backing, or ours, without the details.
The Finizio administration has for the most part been an open and transparent one. Don't change that record now. Release the agreement.