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Manchester mayor steps down as top negotiator

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 10. 2015 10:57PM

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas (UNION LEADER FILE)

MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas on Wednesday relinquished his role as the lead negotiator with the city’s unions, after a majority of aldermen the night before voted against tentative contract agreements.

In a letter to Alderman-at-Large Dan O’Neil, the chairman of the board of aldermen, Gatsas said he was giving his “official notice” that he would no longer “be taking part in union negotiations.” He recommended that O’Neil set up a special committee of three aldermen to take over as the city’s representative in the talks.

The developments make it unlikely that agreements will be reached on labor contracts for the vast majority of city employees, including police and firefighters, before the current ones expire at the end of this month. This would essentially result in a pay freeze for the employees until new agreements are reached, while the current terms of their health insurance would also remain in place.

Gatsas’ decision to step down as negotiator was criticized by Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, who is also a candidate for mayor.

“I think the letter from the mayor is an example of his inability to find solutions for the city,” Craig said. “He asked for this authority, and we gave it to him, and when it didn’t go his way, he quit. And now we’ll have to work together to find a solution under a compressed timeline.”

Gatsas defended his work as lead negotiator and his decision to give up the post after the preliminary agreement was rejected.

“I worked very hard on it,” he said. “If I bring a tentative agreement and it’s not accepted, it’s up to the aldermen to find a different way. Maybe Alderman Craig should sit at the negotiating table.”

Gatsas declined to comment on the proposed agreement itself because it was only discussed in nonpublic session on Tuesday.

The session began immediately after the board had voted to adopt final budgets for the city and school district that total $305 million. Neither budget allocates any additional money over the current year for adjustments in employee salaries and health insurance as a result of new contracts. The teachers union, which has been working without a contract for two years, is voting this week on whether to ratify a tentative agreement.

According to several sources, the tentative agreements considered Tuesday were reached with two municipal unions, but the city’s finance director expressed concerns that they would be very costly if the same terms were sought by all unions, as is often the case in contract negotiations.

O’Neil, who has generally enjoyed the backing of city unions, said he didn’t agree with everything in the preliminary agreements, but that he “would’ve supported them.”

He added that he was “disappointed” in Gatsas’ decision to step down as negotiator, but that he recognized that he had “put a lot of time into it.”

O’Neil said he may propose a one-year extension of the current contracts in order to allow more time to deal with the contentious issues of health care and salaries, as well as the question of whether to hire a professional negotiator, as the city has in the past. O’Neil said he was concerned about the prospect of having many city employees working under expired contracts.

“I do get concerned about morale. We’re asking our police, our firefighters, to put their lives on the line every day,” he said. “It’s human nature, when people don’t feel good about how they’re treated as employees, it affects their performance, whether in the public sector or private.”

The other at-large alderman, Joe Kelly Levasseur, took a dimmer view of the agreements negotiated by Gatsas, indicating that they were too generous and politically motivated.

“He gave us contracts that benefited employees and not the taxpayers, and now that the board refused to vote for them, he’s going to turn around and hope the city employees get mad at Joyce Craig,” Levasseur said.

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