Union members protest outside City Hall before the July 7 meeting. (Biddeford Teamsters photo)
Maybe it was the heat.
Maybe it was that more than 150 people had packed themselves into the tiny and cramped Biddeford City Council Chambers.
More than likely, it was because tensions remain high between the city council and the Teamsters union that represents the city’s police, fire and public works department in ongoing contract negotiations.
But for whatever reason, only a few minutes into the July 7 council meeting, chaos erupted and the meeting was quickly adjourned before it ever really started.
It was a spectacle to watch; embarrassing on many levels and completely avoidable.
Although it was a powder keg in search of a match, the first moments of the meeting seemed routine. There was the Pledge of Allegiance and everyone stood, removed their hats and paid homage to our nation’s flag.
And then, Mayor Alan Casavant asked for a moment of silence to recognize the passing of two distinguished citizens.
Again, everyone in the room was completely respectful, bowing their heads in a moment of silence. But then, gazing at the crowd that literally surrounded the council, Casavant simply asked some attendees to stand in the hallway in order to comply with building safety codes.
The crowd of mostly Teamsters and their supporters refused to budge. “We’re not going anywhere,” they shouted, quickly followed by thunderous applause.
One of the councilors (from the videotape of the meeting it remains unclear who it was) responded, “Do you want us to shut it down?”
In unison, the angry Teamsters began chanting: “Shut it down! Shut it down!”
One councilor quickly made a motion to adjourn the meeting, it was just as quickly seconded. And a majority of councilors voted to adjourn the meeting before it ever really started.
The Teamsters were visibly upset. They stood in place, screaming at the councilors and chanting: “Shame on you! Shame on you!”
The people’s business went unfinished. No member of the public was able to address the council. It was a poor reflection of a great city.
The Blame Game
So who’s to blame for the complete breakdown in civility, decorum and common courtesy?
Well, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this circus show, so let’s start at the top.
With nearly two terms under his belt as the city’s mayor, four terms as a state legislator and prior experience as a city councilor (not to mention teaching psychology at Biddeford High School), Mayor Alan Casavant should have seen this coming well in advance.
Casavant should have changed the venue for the meeting to accommodate what everyone knew was going to be a capacity crowd.
Casavant failed to lead because of his embedded belief in the decency of his fellow citizens. He thought he could simply ask for order, and his request would be honored. That’s not how the real world works. It may have worked in his classroom, but the mayor simply cannot be so naïve as to think the meeting was not going to be raucous and overcrowded.
Casavant was elected to be a leader, not to be a nice guy.
In the final moments of the meeting, Council President John McCurry leaned over to Casavant and said, “You need to get a handle on this situation.”
McCurry was right.
But the blame does not rest solely with Casavant.
Assets, not liabilities
Although a majority of the council was angry, there was no need to threaten to “shut down” the meeting. The council could have sat idly until the crowd complied, ordering public access television to be paused and waiting for things to settle down.
Instead, at least one of the councilors issued an ultimatum: “Do you want us to shut it down?”
That did not fly with the Teamsters.
Whether they like it or not, the council has a responsibility to hear its citizens’ concerns and grievances. It also has a responsibility to hear those same concerns from city employees, many of whom are also residents.
I have been covering Biddeford politics for the better part of two decades, and there seems to be a constant, pervasive theme that transcends each administration: City employees are liabilities, not assets. In reality, it is the other way around.
The council has its position in the negotiations, but it is unrealistic to expect that those on the other side of the table are going to simply accept what is offered, especially when the offer (according to sources from within the union) is such a low-ball offer.
Furthermore, the council cannot lay all the blame at the mayor’s feet. They should have made a motion to move the meeting to a different venue at a different time in order to accommodate the crowd.
Instead, they stubbornly insist that all future meetings will be held in the cramped city council chamber.
Men To Boys
Biddeford’s police, fire and public works employees are some of the hardest working, most decent people you will ever come across.
It appears that the union has a legitimate beef with the negotiations. They are being asked to sacrifice a lot. Perhaps, this is the city’s negotiating tool: a ridiculous low-ball offer that can be incrementally worked up.
But we are not talking about buying a Ford F-150 or a Toyota Prius. We are talking about men and women who will literally put their lives on the line for you and me.
I do not know how much police officers or firefighters are paid, but I guarantee you it is not enough.
On the other hand, the city has limited resources, and public employees need to accept the same realities that private-sector employees are facing.
As I watched the July 7 meeting, I couldn’t help but imagine what would have happened to me if I marched into my employers’ office and started shouting “shame on you” because I was upset about a lack of a raise or losing some benefits. If my employer asked me to wait in the hallway for a few moments while things settled down, and I refused to budge, what do you think would happen?
I would be looking for another job.
That’s how it works in the real world.
Furthermore, it is beyond ironic that public safety employees would refuse to comply with public safety regulations.
Earth to Teamsters: The mayor was not asking you to leave or trying to silence your voices. He simply asked a few of you to step into the adjacent hallway and wait your turn to speak. Was that such an unreasonable request?
Stomping your feet and shouting is for two-year-olds, not for adults.
And let’s be clear, this is not the first time when have witnessed junior high school theatrics from the Teamsters.
During my tenure as a newspaper editor, I recall previous contract negotiations that were just as heated and just as contentious. In fact, during one council meeting, several union members circled City Hall in their vehicles, honking their horns repeatedly in order to disrupt the meeting.
In summary, there’s plenty of blame to go around in this situation. I strongly suggest that the mayor, every member of the city council and the Teamsters all put on their big-boy pants and negotiate in good faith.
Our public employees should be treated with respect.
That respect should also be reciprocated.