Lawrence leaders work late into the night on contract dispute between city, unionized employee group

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The Lawrence City Commission listens to a presentation from representatives with Teamsters Local 696 during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.

The Lawrence City Commission has been tasked with settling a dispute in contract negotiations between the city and a group of unionized employees, but it still wasn’t near a resolution by 10 p.m. Tuesday.

As the Journal-World has reported, the City Commission will have the final say in contract negotiations between the city and a group of unionized city employees, which have stalled as the parties have failed to reach agreements on cleanup at homeless camps, grievances affecting multiple employees and expectations for work and pay during an emergency facility closure. The group of central maintenance, engineering, technician, building maintenance and parks field employees filed a petition to unionize under Teamsters Local 696 last year.

City staff and Teamsters representatives didn’t begin their presentations to the City Commission until three hours into Tuesday’s meeting, at around 8:45 p.m., and discussion among commissioners didn’t commence until nearly an hour later.

Early on, the discussion focused on the issue of cleanup at homeless camps. Commissioner Bart Littlejohn had questions about how many other groups of city employees beside the ones in this unionized group are expected to assist with cleanup at unsanctioned homeless camps, and how they’re trained for that work. Which employees help with that work varies, outgoing Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said, but it’s usually a collaboration between the Parks and Recreation and Municipal Services and Operations departments depending on the size and location of a camp.

Mark Hecker, one of the Parks and Recreation Department’s assistant directors, added that the process has evolved over the past three years, and the department is currently cleaning up one campsite per week on average. As for training, Hecker said it’s a continuing effort that includes training for dealing with hazardous materials, bloodborne pathogens and more. Some of those tie into other work handled by the department.

“I guess what I would say is what they’re encountering at these camps is not a lot different than what we encounter in a lot of other areas in our department,” Hecker told commissioners. “If you think about cleanup (of) all the restrooms every day — every day we clean the restrooms, every day we clean all the shelters, every day we clean all the buildings, so we encounter the same things both with campsite cleanups and our usual facility cleaning.”

Littlejohn and other commissioners said they weren’t comfortable with how city staff was framing the issue of campsite cleanup. Commissioner Amber Sellers, for example, wasn’t satisfied with the characterization that cleanup at homeless camps was identical to the cleaning that takes place in other areas of the city. Sellers said the presence of elements like human excrement takes that work outside of the scope of day-to-day job duties.

“I’m a little bit disappointed in the chaotic presentation of this, and I think a little bit of the dismissiveness of it as it relates to policy around something of this nature,” Sellers said. “To attempt to condense it down to be cleanup like a park, I understand that there is some inherent risk with park cleanup as well, but this takes on a different component. There is trauma involved in this — it’s trauma for the individual who is cleaning up the site, it’s trauma for those who are losing their things.”

After the City Commission provides its guidance for how to proceed, the two parties will work to finalize a memorandum of understanding for future approval, with an effective date of Jan. 1, 2024.

In other business, commissioners:

* Unanimously adopted Ordinance No. 10005 establishing a Neighborhood Revitalization Area at 1000 New Hampshire St. and authorizing City Manager Craig Owens to execute a cooperative agreement between the city, Douglas County and the Lawrence school district on NRA administration and a performance agreement with the incentive recipient.

With the decision, Lawrence developer Tony Krsnich will get an incentives package for his affordable housing project for seniors, New Hampshire Street Lofts, that includes a 15-year, 95% tax rebate. There’s been one change to the scope of the project since city leaders unanimously approved the incentives package on its first pass in September — instead of 15,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor of the building, there will be eight live-work units to go along with the 48 units of rent-controlled affordable housing already slated for the floors above.

* Received a report detailing recommendations from the city’s Board and Commissions Structure Committee, and decided to accept the recommendations, with the exception of a suggestion to dissolve the Sustainability Advisory Board.

The committee recommended consolidating the city’s 45 volunteer boards and commissions to a group of fewer than 10. Cutting the Sustainability Advisory Board wasn’t a popular suggestion among public commenters — including a few members of that board — who spoke during the meeting and urged commissioners to keep the board. The City Commission didn’t seem interested in eliminating the board, and multiple commissioners said they saw merit in keeping it intact.


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