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December 30. 2012 9:02PM

Union gets rulings against Pittsfield over speech, pay

The state Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) has slammed the Pittsfield Board of Selectmen for a short-lived attempt at preventing town employees from speaking out on town affairs in public or in letters to local newspapers.

The gag order was the substance one of several disputes the Pittsfield Town Employees union and the town decided last week.

The PELRB hearing officer also backed the union on issues involving private police details and overtime, and sided with the town on a scheduling issue.

The union, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), represents most town workers, including police ranking from sergeant to chief. The town's 12 patrol officers are represented by the Teamsters, which prevailed in a grievance on the private detail issue in September.

PELRB Hearing Officer Karina Mozgovaya said the gag order, technically in effect for only 10 days, interfered with the rights of employees to be "free from intimidation or coercion by the public employer in exercise of their statutory rights."

The rule approved by selectmen required that communications from town employees "anticipated to be shared with media outlets, shall be reviewed by the Board of Selectmen or its designee."

Selectmen also instructed Town Administrator Paul Skowron to discourage department heads and their subordinates from attending meetings of the board while on the clock.

"Unless the Board of Selectmen has extended an invitation for you and/or your staff ... there is no purpose to your presence," Skowron said in a memo to employees.

After a spate of unfavorable publicity, selectmen rescinded the policy and issued a statement urging public officials and employees to exercise "discretion" in public statements.

The ban on town police working private details has been overturned in two separate cases. In September, a hearing officer issued a ruling in the case of the patrol officers.

Mozgovaya ordered the town to pay union members money they lost by not being allowed to work the details.

The ruling said the chief and sergeants lost out on at least $862 in detail pay, based on requests made by private companies. In 2011, the superior officers were paid $3,972 in detail pay, the decision said.

In the previous case involving patrolmen, one officer alone had earned approximately $16,000 in detail pay during 2011.

Pittsfield taxpayers also owe back pay to employees who missed out on overtime because the town hired part-time employees to cover vacant shifts. The hearing officer ruled that practice violated the collective bargaining agreement, and noted that the union and town had agreed to a contract that provided for no cost of living or step increases for three years, and higher health care costs.

No estimate has been completed of the cost of paying Pittsfield town workers for the overtime shifts and private details they didn't work.

The hearing officer rejected a grievance complaining about work schedules on the town ambulance crew.

billsmith@unionleader.com

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