A public employees union that represents cafeteria workers and others is leading the fight to block a controversial plan to create a chief operating officer to oversee City Hall.
Though “there’s always a threat there could be a loss of union jobs” if the new administrative post is created, “this is a taxpayer issue” first and foremost, said Chad Lockhart, president of Local 2267 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
A letter sent out by the union to “union brothers and sisters” in Bristol says it is “putting together a committee to fight against” the Nov. 4 charter change referendum that would add the chief operating officer to the city government’s structure.
“A chief operating officer,” the letter explains, “will not prove to be a friend to unions.”
“What is that implying?” asked Republican city Councilor Ken Cockayne. “That implies that the labor leadership has their hands in City Hall.”
Cockayne, who supports the referendum, said the letter shows the public “who’s behind the vote no organization” that has started putting up lawn signs against the proposal.
In the letter, the union says it is placing signs to express opposition to the idea on members’ lawns around town.
“We really need to show strong opposition for what would surely prove to be a costly mistake for the city of Bristol and also for our AFSCME members,” the letter said, adding that anyone who didn’t want a sign should call the union to let it know.
Lockhart said that as a small business owner in town and a night supervisor for a high school, he “can see this whole thing from different angles” and understands why some people might like a chief operating officer.
However, he said, even those who see a need for a type of city manager should recognize that the proposal on the ballot next month is seriously flawed.
Because the city would retain its full-time mayor, it would wind up with “two people to do the same job” at greater cost if the charter revision is approved, Lockhart said.
Since the city already has someone at its helm “who, in my opinion, is doing a great job” as mayor, there’s no need to add another position at even higher pay to duplicate what’s already in place, Lockhart said.
He said that one reason to prefer a mayor to a chief operating officer is that voters can throw out a mayor they don’t like every two years.
To get rid of a chief operating officer, Lockhart said, takes a two-thirds of the City Council” and leaves the public with no role.
“I like the people to have the vote,” he said.
Installing a chief operating officer to oversee the city’s departments, Lockhart said, would “take the power away from the people and give it to the government.”
Former Republican mayoral candidate Ken Johnson, who helped organize the Choose COO group pushing for passage of the plan, said the proposal “isn’t anti-union. It is pro-taxpayer.”
Johnson said that if the public supports the charter change, people “can be assured that they will have a professional in City Hall who will put the taxpayers first and not be beholden to special interests or political whim.”
Lockhart said the plan offered to the public isn’t going to protect taxpayers.
He said that it doesn’t make any sense to add a powerful new administrative position that Mayor Art Ward and the council oppose that would leave a full-time mayor in place “to be a baby kisser and a handshaker.”
But Cockayne said the opposition is motivated by self-interest alone.
The union leadership, he said, “is afraid of accountability at City Hall.”
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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