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Union files complaints against Armstrong

June 1, 2017
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

Preston DeBoer, the union representative from AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Iowa Council 61, filed five complaints against the city of Armstrong May 10.

Armstrong city attorney Brian Thul of Whittemore filed an answer to the complaints Tuesday. The answer states simply, "we deny any and all allegations."

In an interview with the Estherville News on Wednesday, DeBoer said he has been a union representative since 1996, and in that time the city of Armstrong is only the second employer against which he has filed a complaint on behalf of its employees. He said when employers of newly-organized employees don't understand the process, they typically seek legal counsel or otherwise educate themselves to be a participant in the process.

"It is rare that the filing of a complaint happens," DeBoer said.

His complaints set out a timeline of the collective bargaining process between the city of Armstrong and its employees.

Sept. 14, 2016, DeBoer sent a letter of intent to bargain to the city. DeBoer said he was unable to contact anyone at city hall by telephone, and he finally drove to Armstrong Nov. 15, 2016. DeBoer said then city council member Lori Larsen contacted him and set up a meeting, but Larsen cancelled the meeting. When DeBoer attempted to follow up, he was informed that Larsen had resigned from the city council.

DeBoer said the importance of collective bargaining is this: "State law provides the only vehicle in which employees have a voice in determining their wages and benefits."

An open meeting was held Feb. 9, 2017. Rhett Hiney negotiated for the city, resulting in a tentative agreement of all terms and conditions of the collective bargaining agreement. Hiney instructed mayor Greg Buum to sign, and DeBoer signed for the employees.

At the Feb. 13 council meeting, the tentative agreement was presented to the city council, but it was defeated. Rhett Hiney voted no. Mayor Greg Buum asked Hiney why he agreed to the terms in the closed session, but voted no, Hiney stated he only agreed to the tentative agreement in order to end negotiations.

"There are two elements in Armstrong, in my view," DeBoer said. "There is an element on the city council that has done nothing to support this process."

DeBoer said the hope he saw in Armstrong was citizen engagement.

"At the two city council meetings I have attended, I noted an impressive number of citizens. Concern brings people out. I was impressed by the people of Armstrong," DeBoer said. "I'd rather not do things this way, with filing public complaints with the state. I always want to start out on the right foot with any group."

Patty Thackery replaced Lori Larsen on the city council and was assigned to the Personnel Committee. Clint Davis was named committee chairperson. Davis and Thackery agreed to start negotiations over under the new law, SB291, which changed the way collective bargaining happens in Iowa.

March 13 the parties confirmed a new tentative agreement. Davis stated the open meeting had been posted, and Thackery was informed of the meeting and time. The city council defeated this agreement, too.

Thackery voiced her support of the March 13 decision and refused to negotiate further.

The most flagrant violation of state law by the city council, DeBoer said, was the changes in the employee health care plan.

DeBoer informed the city council that health insurance was a mandatory topic of bargaining, prior to the law taking effect Feb. 17, and would need to be negotiated under Chapter 20 of the Iowa Code. The city, before reaching the tentative agreement Feb. 9 and defeating it Feb. 13, had already unilaterally enacted the increases in employee out-of-pocket costs Feb. 1.

"This is a clear violation of the law," DeBoer said.

DeBoer said, "The employees are in the middle and that's not fair."

DeBoer declined to state what steps might be taken if the city does not remedy the issues in which they are in violation of the law.



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