As negotiations between the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the firefighters union over a new contract continue, the two sides have entered into somewhat of a war of words.
Over the last two board meetings, members of each organization have accused the other of crossing a line of decorum.
At last week’s board meeting, union president Dave Nelson accused supervisors of attempting to demean and “villainize” county firefighters.
“You don’t know what our job is, nor do you respect what we do,” Nelson said. “You haven’t placed your family second to anything but the camera and the campaign trail. You understand only that you need something to hang your name on, something that will make you stand out within your political circles.”
Supervisor Mick Gleason responded this week, saying Nelson’s comments had been an assault on the Kern County taxpayer.
“We had an incident when a union president crossed the line from a positive response or positive criticism to one that is narrow, and focused solely on something other than the best interest of Kern County,” Gleason said during Tuesday's board meeting.
He later added, “that kind of garbage doesn’t belong in this building. It doesn’t belong here and it needs to be repulsed.”
The harsh words come at a time when the union and the county are supposed to be working out a new contract. Since May, the union has been at an impasse with the county over negotiations.
The county had proposed cutting overtime pay by $3.4 million, a small percentage of the $24 million in overtime doled out each year. The union, however, overwhelmingly rejected the county’s offer, saying cuts to overtime needed to be met with an increase in base pay. During pay discussions, the union frequently brings up the fact that cost-of-living pay increases have not been approved since 2008.
If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, supervisors can vote to impose their contract on the union, an outcome Supervisor David Couch said he hoped to avoid.
“I’m just hopeful that we are able to work collaboratively with the fire department moving forward,” he said. “Imposition is kind of my last choice.”
While public discussions over firefighter overtime have been widely covered in the media, the latest dust-up occurred after KGET-17 aired a segment detailing the issue.
Nelson said county officials painted firefighters in a bad light by participating in the segment.
“You either truly do not care about your employees, using the segment to once again kick your employees while they are down,” he said. “Or are simply using us as pawns for the next step in the political arena.”
He added that the union stood behind his statements, which reflected the sentiments of many union members.
Supervisor Leticia Perez took on a conciliatory tone.
“It is an upsetting situation for all of us, no question,” she said. “It is a difficult one, one that we should strive for civility.”
But whether or not relations get better or worse between supervisors and the union is yet to be seen. Supervisors said they hoped to negotiate further to come to an agreement on a new contract.
Firefighters have been without a contract since October 2017. It is unclear at this point when a new contract can be signed.
“We’re in some dark times here,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “(Firefighters) are just tired. They’re just broken down.”