The taxpayers of Bergenfield deserve better

Labor Relations Report 

In September 2020, NJSPBA President Pat Colligan was asked to intervene in Bergenfield’s contract negotiations to get it “back on track and resolve this long dispute.” Surprisingly, this request came from Boro Administrator Corey Gallo. Colligan met Gallo when they were both panelists chosen to discuss the expired interest arbitration cap. It is easy to assume that a panelist would have extensive knowledge and be well respected by the audience of public employment professionals, but we all know what happens when you ASS-U-ME incorrectly.

Pat invited Bergenfield Local 309 President Dave Tortora and State Delegate Robert Mader to the State Office for a meeting to see if we could devise a plan to settle the dispute. To prepare for the meeting, I read the correspondence that Gallo sent to prove Local 309 was being unreasonable. Gallo was clearly wrong and the unfair labor practice charge that was upheld by PERC was not in dispute but still being defied by Gallo, on behalf of the Boro.

I called Gallo to discuss this with him in preparation for the meeting. He was adamant that the arbitration award did not mean what it said, so they were not going to sign the contract. They were appealing PERC’s decision that Bergenfield failed to reduce the award issued by arbitrator Brian Kronick to a contract and abide by its terms. I told him that it is certainly within the rights of the Boro to appeal, but it is an obvious waste of time, energy and taxpayer dollars.

The only issue that was holding up negotiations was Gallo’s insistence that the PBA abandon the principle of dynamic status quo and agree to freeze steps after the expiration of the contract, regardless of the months or, in this case, years it takes to get a successor agreement. I told him in no uncertain terms that we would not advise a negotiating team to agree to that, given the history of their labor relations. I did suggest that we all sit down together to come up with a solution.

Gallo was open to the idea, but only if Local President Tortora was not involved. (Dave is admittedly outspoken against Gallo in meetings.) Since the employer is prohibited from dominating or interfering with the formation, existence or administration of any employee organization, we wouldn’t consider allowing him to dictate who was involved with PBA negotiations.

Fast forward three months, and the Boro’s appeal was denied just as we predicted. They signed the 2018-2020 contract but refused to pay step increases, citing another questionable interpretation that required court-ordered clarification. The clarification came from the arbitrator agreeing with Bergenfield’s position. Shortly after the clarification, the PBA found that arbitrator Kronick had been hired by Bergenfield as a hearing officer and paid a substantial amount of money to decide how to discipline Bergenfield cops. Arbitrators are, by definition, neutral parties between two sides of a dispute. Nevertheless, the PBA was unable to prove a conflict of interest existed by one party paying a neutral party significantly more than the opposing party, but I digress. Negotiations continued to be at an impasse.

The PBA filed for arbitration a year later. The arbitrator assigned by PERC was Marc Winters. He is a very accomplished mediator, but his attempts to affect a voluntary resolution of the impasse were fruitless. The arbitration process included oral argument, witness testimony and documentary evidence to include various collective negotiations agreements, memorandums of agreement, prior interest arbitration awards and financial/economic data. Most notably, Bergenfield waived its ability-to-pay argument and confirmed its ability to pay the costs of the contract proposal without a negative effect on the taxpayer. They just didn’t want to pay this group of police employees.

The arbitrator’s initial interest arbitration award was issued in September 2021 and immediately appealed by the PBA. In November, the commission vacated the original award and remanded the case back to Winters. They held that the arbitrator improperly waited until his award to decide on the PBA’s objection to the Boro’s healthcare contribution proposal as not having been identified as an issue in dispute. He was ordered to allow the parties to submit additional evidence on the issue of healthcare contributions and a revised final offer. On remand, the arbitrator awarded the Boro’s proposals for contract term, salary increases, new salary guide for new hires, removal of certain contract language and healthcare contributions. The arbitrator did not award any of the PBA’s proposals. The arbitrator awarded the following terms:

  • five-year contract term from Jan. 1, 2021 through Dec. 31, 2025
  • 2 percent annual salary increases for officers who reach top step
  • a 10-step salary guide for new hires, effective Jan. 1, 2022
  • removal of the Article III, Section 2 language from the 2017 agreement which states that “increments shall be paid in accordance with past practice”
  • increase in healthcare benefits contributions from 15 percent to the equivalent of Chapter 78, Tier 4 levels but capped at 25 percent of the cost of healthcare benefits

The 117-page remand award that was so grossly filled with erroneous statements seemed egregious. Since we had been involved with this for several years, President Colligan took the unprecedented step of composing a letter supporting the appeal that was filed. The Local’s attorney cited all the legal reasons the award should be vacated, so Colligan only requested impartiality of the commission when examining the remand award and the briefs supporting the parties’ positions according to the Employer-Employee Relations Act.

Some of the key phrases from the decision:

  • “The remand award is vacated on the following grounds: a mutual, final and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made; and the award is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.”
  • “The arbitrator failed to address the PBA’s arguments….”
  • “Accordingly, we find that the arbitrator so imperfectly executed his powers that a mutual, final and definite award upon the subject matter was not made”
  • “We find it was an abuse of discretion for the arbitrator to consider those additional arbitration awards”

Although the commission unanimously voted once again to remand this matter and assign it to a new arbitrator, at the time of this writing, Gallo has offered further negotiations (without Tortora) while he weighs appealing the PERC decision. Gallo blamed President Colligan for the commission’s decision. He blames Tortora for the inability to negotiate with the PBA, and he blames other individuals in the other negotiating units in Bergenfield for many issues that persist.

But there seems to be one common denominator in this equation, and that’s Corey Gallo. He must try to conduct himself with honor and integrity, regardless of personalities, as he represents the taxpayers of Bergenfield. He has been responsible for more tax dollars spent on legal fees fighting his own losing causes than the total cost of the PBA proposal. This is public business; it’s not personal. The taxpayers of Bergenfield and every other municipality deserve better representation to protect their interests