2015-11-19 / Opinion

Middletown Council Tries to Trump State Law


To the Editor:

Middletown Town Council President Robert Sylvia demonstrated a lack of legal understanding in the recent letter to the editor he penned in Newport This Week. ("Frivolous Teachers' Lawsuit Will Waste Money," Nov. 12)

He is correct to state that the Middletown teachers have filed a lawsuit in Superior Court seeking a declaratory judgment as to whether the Town Council has the right to vote up or down an agreement reached between the Middletown School Committee and the Middletown teachers. However, that is where the accuracy of his statements ends.

In fact, the Middletown teachers have no issue with the Town Charter amendment requiring Town Council approval of contracts in which municipal bargaining units are concerned, such as the fire, police and Town Hall workers. But Middletown teachers are not "municipal employees" in the legal sense of that term. We are, in fact, certified school teachers subject to an entirely different statutory structure, the Certified School Teachers Arbitration Act. Based upon that statute, the Middletown teachers must negotiate with the Middletown School Committee, not the Town Council. Thus, the Town Council's charter amendment allowing it to overrule an agreement reached between the Middletown teachers and the School Committee is an attempt to trump the state law to which the Middletown teachers are subject.

And the problems with that are numerous:

For example, while the Middletown teachers spent the summer engaged in negotiations and mediation with the Middletown School Committee, the Town Council was not involved. However, once an extension agreement was reached by the parties after countless hours were invested, the Town Council voted against the agreement. The stated basis for rejecting the memorandum of agreement negotiated between the Middletown teachers and the Middletown School Committee was that it was “not good for kids” and not “fiscally prudent.” I’ll ask again what I asked at the Town Council meeting on Oct. 5: How is a six-month extension of a contract, which sought to keep the status quo while the parties continued to negotiate, bad for kids? And how was it not fiscally prudent? The teachers are taking ZERO for this fiscal year. Are we worth less than zero?

Whose resources are really being wasted here? But, more importantly, with whom should the Middletown teachers really be negotiating: the School Committee or the Town Council? It’s a legal question that requires an answer before the teachers can proceed much further down this road. After all, the teachers could reach agreements with the School Committee in the future only to be obstructed by a vote by a Town Council that plays no role in the negotiation process, either practically or legally. It seems clear that a legal dilemma has been created by the Town Council’s actions against Middletown teachers.

Finally, Mr. Sylvia characterizes the lawsuit as an attempt by Middletown teachers to get access to more of “taxpayers’ money.” First and foremost, let me correct Mr. Sylvia’s statement in his attempt to discredit our integrity and explain our thoughts for us. We have, for at least the past two decades during which I have personally served on the committee to negotiate, sought to reach a fair and equitable agreement–nothing more and nothing less. Second, even if this were not the case, I am sure that Mr. Sylvia, as president of the Town Council, must possess a practical knowledge of how municipal finances work. If so, he must realize that even without this charter amendment, there are a number of checks and balances in place that would keep even the most aggressive negotiator from getting anything more than cost of living adjustments for any group.

The Middletown teachers have been on a merry-go-round for the last year, but we have always maintained our composure and professional stature. Despite how we have recently been vilified by Mr. Sylvia, we go above and beyond to strive every day to provide the best education possible to the children of Middletown. Our lawsuit is aimed at resolving this situation swiftly so that we may proceed with the appropriate guidance and structure that we need in order to continue negotiations. Unfortunately, it seems that we can no longer expect to be treated with dignity and respect, at least by Mr. Sylvia.

Lisa Wood

NEA Middletown President To the Editor:

The Newport City Council was recently admonished for being dysfunctional, with a climate of “disagreement, dissension and disrespect” in a local article. It called upon council members “to put their personal pride aside and work for a common goal, the one they were elected to work toward: making Newport a better place to live, work in and visit.” I couldn’t agree more! Our city councilors should be doing the job they were elected to do. But first, they must make an effort to know what that job is.

Over the past several years, a number of candidates have run for council without ever attending a council meeting. I often wonder what they envision the job to be, and whether they are prepared for the hard work of doing it well. If elected, there is little by way of a formal orientation process, making it their task to learn the responsibilities and boundaries of their position, and to become familiar with the processes by which they must operate. When this does not happen the result can be a council characterized by frustration, antagonism and a lack of functionality.

Regardless of the talent, vision or personality possessed by a councilor, there is no substitute for knowing the rules. Just as there is no quarterback so gifted that he can walk onto the field and say, “Hey, today let’s play the game my way,” there is no councilor who is – or should be – above the rules set forth in the City Charter. It is this document that defines the role of the council, the powers and responsibilities that accrue to it, and the limits of its authority. When members of the council lack awareness of what they are charged by the City Charter to do, when they fail to learn or attend to the rules, they hinder the process of functional governing. When leadership fails to insist upon the very first and most fundamental responsibility of the elected to become familiar with their job description, it encourages an environment of “disagreement, dissension and disrespect.”

There is a process by which ideas are transformed into action. Those we elect should be held accountable for knowing that process and following it. Leadership should exercise its authority to ensure that this occurs by developing a culture that begins with a common body of knowledge regarding how our city government functions. I fully support the idea of the council having more strategic planning sessions. However, prior to doing so, it would be valuable to schedule a session in which to review the powers, rights and responsibilities of the council, the processes by which appropriate initiatives advance and such other topics as may provide a framework for effective and collegial action. Such a meeting should henceforth be scheduled within the first month of the installation of any new council and attendance should be mandatory. It would appear that this is the only way to familiarize some councilors with the job they were elected to do.

Cris Cobaugh

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