Vergennes police to hold union vote within weeks

“A good number of police departments in the state are represented by a union.” — Tim Noonan, Vermont Labor Relations Board

VERGENNES — According to Tim Noonan, the executive director of the Vermont Labor Relations Board, he will oversee an election at the Vergennes Police Department either later this month or in early September. The vote will determine if the officers of the city police force will unionize.

City officials in July made it official they would not oppose the officers’ wish to affiliate with the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEPBA), a union that represents many law enforcement agencies in New England, including in Vermont.

The proposed union includes non-supervisory personnel only, and not Chief George Merkel. Merkel has taken no position on whether his department should unionize. There are currently eight officers in the department, not counting Merkel, but one is funded by a grant to serve as a countywide traffic-safety coordinator.

The officers notified the Labor Relations Board in June of their intent to affiliate with NEPBA. In June the city council and City Manager Matt Chabot were engaged in a contentious public debate on whether to reduce the number of officers in the department by one or two. Ultimately they approved a tax rate and accepted a budget from Chabot that did not include cuts.

Officers have declined comment to the Independent on their reasons for seeking union affiliation.

By state statute, Chabot could have opposed the union, accepted it as an “appropriate” bargaining unit, or sought the election to confirm the officers’ intent. He told the Independent in an email he chose the third course.

“I have advised the LRB (Labor Relations Board) that the City agrees to a consent election,” Chabot wrote.

By state law the city manager has final say in such personnel decisions, but Mayor Jeff Fritz wrote in an email that Chabot first consulted with Fritz and Deputy Mayor Lynn Donnelly.

“We fully support his decision, and he continues to keep us apprised,” Fritz said.

On this past Wednesday, Noonan said he would be reaching out to both sides “within the next day or so” to lay the groundwork for an election at the city’s North Main Street police station.

As well as finding a date that works for everybody, city officials will be required to supply to the LRB a full list of all employees eligible to join the union. The officers will be required to file union documentation, including cards signed by at least 30 percent of possible members showing their support for affiliation with NEPBA.

Given the earlier filing with the LRB, Noonan said that required step would probably be a formality.

Noonan will run the election, which representatives of both sides have the right to observe. Officers will vote individually in secret balloting.

“They’re all going to come into the room one at a time,” Noonan said. 

Noonan will then count the ballots and announce the results.

Noonan said the LRB does not have statistics for the percentage of police departments that are unionized, but described it as “significant.”

“A good number of police departments in the state are represented by a union,” he said.

City officials have been advised by their attorney not to comment further on the unionization question.

But issues that could be on the bargaining table have surfaced during recent budget talks and related conversations.

Chabot confirmed that, like Vergennes public works employees, city police officers are not paid while their status is on call for potential duty.

Health insurance benefits could also crop up. What city officials called a 15 percent increase in the cost of providing those benefits translated to an additional $94,000 in spending in the new budget.

During budget talks, officials said Vergennes pays 100 percent of the cost of those plans, a practice they said might be revisited in the future. Also discussed was seeking other health insurance providers.

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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