BARRE — A veteran mediator with a solid batting average in Barre has been called on to resolve three local labor disputes, and thanks to Ira Lobel’s successful outing Tuesday it’s already one down and two to go.
The city’s stalled negotiations with unionized members of Barre’s police department were first up for Lobel, who helped settle that dispute on Tuesday, while impasses declared in separate negotiations with unionized teachers and para-educators in the Barre Unified Union School District are on deck later this month.
Lobel played a pivotal role in brokering the multi-year settlements that were belatedly reached with all three bargaining units two years ago. Those contracts all lapsed on June 30 and police officers, emergency dispatchers, teachers and para-educators have all been working under the terms of the expired agreements ever since.
Enter Lobel, who on Tuesday took a fresh cut — successfully nudging negotiators representing the city and the local police union toward what had been an elusive settlement.
This time the two sides weren’t hunkered down in separate rooms at City Hall and Lobel wasn’t shuttling between them in an effort forge a compromise on key contractual issues.
Lobel wasn’t even in Barre — or Vermont for that matter — because COVID-19 has at least temporarily changed the way the former federal mediator does his thing. On Tuesday that meant taking turns spending screen time with negotiating teams as part of a virtual process that kicked off at 9:30 a.m. and wrapped about 7 hours later.
City Manager Steve Mackenzie said there were no handshakes when the session ended, because his team was at City Hall, union negotiators were across town at the public safety building and Lobel was at his home in central New York.
There was, however, a tentative settlement — one Mackenzie informed the City Council about during its Tuesday night meeting and plans to brief them on in more detail in two weeks.
Mackenzie declined to publicly discuss the terms of the settlement at this time, but said they would be released once the union and the council have ratified the agreement. That could take several weeks, he said.
Mackenzie settled in for the long haul on Tuesday morning and was prepared to miss the council meeting that evening if the session dragged on.
In the end that wasn’t necessary.
Even if Lobel’s attempt to mediate the dispute had failed on Tuesday the process was still months ahead of where it was the last two times he was called on for assistance.
When Lobel helped broker a settlement in 2018 unionized officers and emergency dispatchers were working under a contract that expired 10 months earlier and when a similar agreement, reached with his assistance, was ratified in 2015 the second year of the deal had already started.
Mackenzie wasn’t interested in repeating that pattern again and laid out an aggressive schedule in February that envisioned a limited number of face-to-face bargaining sessions before seeking outside assistance. Though the pandemic slowed that process some, having a tentative settlement with the police union less than four months into a contract year is unprecedented in recent memory.
“I’m pleased about that,” Mackenzie said. “I said from the beginning: ‘We’re not going to be doing this (negotiating) for 18 months.”
Though Lobel was successful on Tuesday he still has work to do in Barre where separate negotiations with roughly 270 unionized teachers and 120 para-educators have been at impasse since shortly before the most recent contracts expired on June 30.
School officials have confirmed Lobel will handle a mediation session that is set for Sept. 30 in hopes of facilitating a settlement following a failed first attempt at using interest-based bargaining.
Lobel was able to successfully mediate a dispute between the unions and negotiators for what were then the Barre, Barre Town and Spaulding High School boards. Those boards along with the Barre Supervisory Union have since been merged into a single pre-K-12 school district.
Prior to 2018 Lobel’s attempts at jump-starting stalled teacher negotiations had produced mixed results.
In December 2005, Lobel handled a marathon mediation session that successfully ended a contentious teachers’ strike. The strike shuttered Barre City Elementary and Middle School and Spaulding High School for 10 days.
Lobel was back in Barre in 2010 when the five-year contract he helped mediate was about to expire. That year his attempt at mediation failed and his subsequent role as a mutually agreed upon fact-finder didn’t produce a collectively bargained agreement. It did set the stage for the one-year contract that was unilaterally imposed by the school boards. That contract reflected the wage freeze school board negotiators sought and Lobel recommended in his fact-finding report.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said Vermonters should keep doing what they’ve been doing.
The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases joined Gov. Phil Scott’s Tuesday news conference by video to praise the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and urge Vermonters to stay the course.
“I believe strongly that I’d do what you’ve been doing in Vermont in the rest of the country ... I believe that as we enter the fall and the winter, which will be a challenge because there will be much more indoor activity as opposed to outdoor activity, that we can not only get through the fall and the winter, but we can come out the other end better off than we went in,” he said.
Fauci said that if Vermonters continuing wearing masks, washing their hands and social distancing, the state could even avoid a second wave during the winter. However, he cautioned against Vermonters against letting their guard down.
“Even when you are in as good a shape as Vermont is, you get in that shape by doing the things you’ve done,” he said. “The message I would like all the citizens of the state to hear is that the virus is a formidable foe.”
Fauci said the state’s success cannot simply be attributed to its low population density — Vermont ranks 31st in population density and has a lower infection rate than many more sparsely populated states.
“This is success because of what you did,” he said. “We’ve seen places with high density succeed. For example, although New York City got hit very hard ... now in New York City, they have it right. They got their percentage of positivity not as low as you-all in Vermont, but they got it pretty low.”
Fauci sidestepped questions about the Trump administration’s initial response to the pandemic.
“You can always say what would’ve happened, could’ve happened, should’ve happened,” he said. “That question is not productive.”
Fauci also said that he was not worried an unproven vaccine might be rushed through for political reasons. He said the system for approving vaccine has enough independent checks and balances that he would not hesitate to use one that made it through.
The news conference also offered a progress report on schools reopening. Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said that college heads around the state were “upbeat,” and while the cases Hartford High School and Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury were unwelcome news, outbreaks were inspected and schools responded in exactly the way they were supposed to, with contact tracing and other containment measures proceeding quickly.
A federal judge on Tuesday heard arguments in Rutland on a legal challenge to the state’s mail-in voting plans.
A lawsuit filed earlier this month by five Vermont residents seeks to block Secretary of State Jim Condos’ plan to offer universal vote-by-mail at the November election. In a hearing held via Zoom, Judge Geoffrey Crawford heard arguments for and against a preliminary injunction on the program.
Crawford said he intended to deliver a decision today.
David Warrington, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the case was not predicated on the risk of fraud altering the course of an election, but on the argument that a ballot cast improperly — whether on purpose or otherwise — would violate the Constitutional rights of his clients by “diluting” their votes.
“We’re focused on harm to the individual,” he said. “That is a harm that is concrete. That is addressable by courts.”
Crawford noted that an amicus brief filed by former Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler made a number of suggestions on how Vermont could improve its vote-by-mail protocols, and they all seemed sensible to him as a layperson.
“Is that really our role, to try to figure out a better system?” he asked.
Crawford returned to that theme later in the hearing, asking if he, as an unelected judge, should be cautious about substituting his own judgment for that of an elected official like the Secretary of State.
Warrington said the court’s role is to protect individual voters, which it could do by reverting to the status quo. He said the record absentee ballot participation in the August primary demonstrated Vermont already had an adequate system for mail-in ballots.
Representing the state, Philip Back said the concept of vote dilution came from redistricting cases, which were a different area of law and did not apply to the discussion about mail-in ballots. He said the Secretary of State’s office was not depriving anyone of their right to vote, and the plaintiffs seemed to be arguing that their rights would be violated in any system that was not perfect.
“Having two ballots isn’t a problem,” he said. “It’s the voting twice that’s a problem, and we have systems in place to prevent that.”
Further, Back said, there are recourses for voters whose ballots are sent to the wrong place. Warrington countered that having to fill out the paperwork with the town clerk called for in such a case was a burden on the voter and characterized the state’s argument as “trust us, we’ve got this.”
Crawford rejected a request to submit further amicus briefs, saying he would not be able to offer opposing counsel time to reply to them.
“Thanks but no thanks,” he said. “The time is just too short.”
“How far have we fallen? Too far ... while President Trump is defending the ‘tremendous steps’ that have been taken to save American lives during the pandemic, the rest of the world is calling BS.”
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