Emotions run high in council chambers

It was an intense atmosphere for three self-described little old ladies to put in their two cents.

  • Feb. 8, 2011 2:00 p.m.
Jan Higgins voices her concerns to city council Monday evening surrounding the potential privatization of the Penticton Community Centre.

Jan Higgins voices her concerns to city council Monday evening surrounding the potential privatization of the Penticton Community Centre.

It was an intense atmosphere for three self-described little old ladies to put in their two cents.

Penticton’s council meeting looked more like a Mexican standoff Monday evening as civic CUPE workers and their supporters showed up at the council chamber dressed in red to confront council.

Both sides were packing heat with the city’s recent announcement that it had issued a request for proposals to privatize operations at the almost renovated $23.3 million Penticton Community Centre thus eliminating several union positions; followed in short order by B.C. CUPE president Barry O’Neill’s promise of a provincially backed public campaign against council, and perhaps job action, should the city not reach a deal with its union workers.

All this during a collective bargaining process that has seen both sides accuse the other of stalling talks by refusing to negotiate the other’s proposal.

Should you be keeping score: Last week the city released a “fast facts sheet” detailing an offer it says has been on the table since August — but was turned down Jan. 27 — where all current city employees would keep their jobs at their current pay and benefits in exchange for a tiered pay structure where new workers would get paid less.

However, CUPE local president Patti Finch called the document both inaccurate and inappropriate, accusing Mayor Dan Ashton of having incorrectly described the proposals that have been on the table.

“The proposal brought to the bargaining table is not the same one they presented on Aug. 5,” she said. “His statement that all current employees would keep their jobs is also not accurate.”

When asked, Finch said she did not want to elaborate specifically on what was inaccurate in the information presented by either Ashton or the city as she did not want to negotiate in the media.

Monday’s meeting began with PCC user Jan Higgins interjecting herself onto the agenda to ask why she and her nonpartisan colleagues, Valerie Gardner and Lynn Crassweller, had been refused an opportunity to make a presentation to council.

“Why are you unwilling to hear our concerns?” Higgins challenged. “When can we make a presentation? We believe that our community centre should be run as a service to the community, for the betterment of everyone. We wish to keep it the way it is now: a publicly owned and a publicly run facility.”

Ashton invited the ladies to wait until the end of the meeting, at which point he would allow them to speak during the time typically reserved for questions from the public relating to items on the agenda. They obliged.

Fired up a little, Ashton directly challenged Finch to get back to the bargaining table before Feb. 24, a suggestion later reiterated by Coun. Garry Litke, a former union negotiator himself.

“Why is it OK to say to these people who pay the taxes, who elected you people, that they can’t get on the agenda to talk because of negotiations, but it is OK for you to put everything that we’ve talked about in the media?” said Finch to clapping.

“Well, Patti, who invited Mr. O’Neill here talking about a strike. Let’s cut to the chase on this. Let’s get back to the table. With the utmost of respect, if you don’t want to negotiate in the media from this point on, then please get back to the table,” responded Ashton.

Hours later Gardner and Crassweller furthered Higgins’ assertions.

“We would remind council that there is not a public community centre anywhere that makes money,” said Crassweller. “We wish to keep the heart of our community affordable and publicly run. Why? Because experience has proven that when a public facility is privatized costs go up, we lose accountability and we lose control of our services.

“The bottom line for a contractor is profit and they will cut corners to get that profit. The bottom line for a publicly run facility is service.”

Asked whether the larger public will get an opportunity to share input before a decision on privatizing the PCC is made, both Ashton and Coun. John Vassilaki pointed out that council has been quite consistent with providing such opportunities wherever possible.

“Give us the opportunity,” said Ashton. “Let’s get back to the table. Let’s negotiate. Let’s see what transpires after that.”

Vassilaki went further.

“The union was asked to come up and give us their views and not one of them stood up to speak their piece and I have concerns with that,” he said. “They stated that the stuff that we put in our fact sheet are lies, but they won’t tell us what those lies are.

“I get upset when I hear things that are not true. That is what they are accusing us of. So if they have a beef, get up there and tell us what their beef is. But they won’t.”