Friday, March 19, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
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The clock is ticking for Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak to shut his mouth — or else the county firefighters union might try to shut it for him.
That’s the message implied in a March 10 letter from an attorney representing the firefighters union to County Commission Chairman Rory Reid. The brief missive tells Reid that commissioners “continue to address the media on matters within the scope of bargaining, despite negotiated ground rules to the contrary.”
The letter asks for “confirmation not later than March 20, 2010, that this practice will cease.”
The county and the union are negotiating a contract. The rhetoric about firefighter salaries and other compensation has grown heated because the county faces a massive budget deficit. At the same time, commissioners and county staff perceive firefighters as unwilling to make any real concessions to help balance the budget.
Although the letter is vaguely worded, it’s clearly directed at Sisolak — the most outspoken about firefighters and their pay.
Just three days before the letter was sent, he was quoted in the Sun, expressing his belief that county firefighters have been “gaming” the payroll system by piling up sick-leave absences as a way to collect more overtime pay.
Reid did not return a call to the Sun. But Sisolak said he has no intention of keeping quiet.
“I’m going to continue to speak out,” he said. “I’ve got a First Amendment right to speak, and taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on. I’m not going to be intimidated. If anything, this will only make me more outspoken.”
Contract negotiations are closed. And typically, both parties agree not to discuss the talks publicly.
As a commissioner, Sisolak does not take part in the county’s negotiations, he said, so he should be free to offer his opinion on related issues.
Any information he has gathered about contracts and firefighter compensation, he said, “comes from the phone calls and e-mails from constituents, and people coming up to me in the grocery store telling me how they feel.”
“I don’t even know the dates of negotiations, much less what the ground rules are,” he added. “All I know is what’s out there in the public, and I know common sense. If that’s a violation of some bargaining practice, then it’s silly.”
In an e-mail Thursday, Ryan Beaman, union president, would only say that the union will “respect the established ground rules.” The union’s attorney did not return a call for comment.
In the letter to Reid, the attorney cited two rulings by the Employee-Management Relations Board, a state board that resolves bargaining conflicts. In one, related to Reno firefighter negotiations in 1996, an understanding was established during contract negotiations that parties “would not negotiate through the media.” The other case alleged that the firefighters union in North Las Vegas violated “good faith” bargaining by “dealing directly with the city manager and elected officials” instead of city-designated negotiators.
Sisolak said he didn’t see how either case related to him since he’s not part of the negotiating team.
He said one way to circumvent this issue would be to negotiate in public. “This is the public’s money we’re spending, it’s not our money.”
Although the County Commission is not known for coming together easily on issues, Sisolak has some support. Commission Vice Chairwoman Susan Brager said she would never tell another commissioner to keep quiet.
“We’re all independent of each other, we all have different styles of doing things, and for me to tell a commissioner ‘I don’t want you to be talking,’ wouldn’t be right,” she said. “Does this mean in meetings we shouldn’t say certain things? We have a right to say what we choose to say.”
The Sun story that quoted Sisolak reported county firefighters call in sick almost twice as often as rank-and-file county employees and at about four times the rate of management. Firefighters who call in sick are replaced by colleagues who are paid overtime.