Town, union officials react to mayor’s decision to keep Wallingford Town Hall open during storm

Town, union officials react to mayor’s decision to keep Wallingford Town Hall open during storm


WALLINGFORD — Town and union officials had mixed reactions to the mayor’s decision to keep Town Hall open during Tuesday’s snowstorm after the governor issued a travel ban on all state roads.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. gave employees a choice to report to work or use a vacation day.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s travel ban, which took effect 5 a.m. Tuesday, applied to all state roads, including routes 5, 150 and 68. Other nearby municipalities closed government for nonessential employees Tuesday, including Meriden, Southington, Cheshire and Hamden.

“For the safety of the employees and the public, they should have closed Town Hall,” Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau. “Other towns do it. Why can’t we?”

Democratic Town Councilor Vincent Testa also felt Dickinson should have told non-essential employees to stay home.

“It’s a blizzard for goodness sake,” Testa said.

Other officials supported the longtime Republican mayor’s decision.

“If he feels that Town Hall should be open, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Republican Town Councilor Joe Marrone.

On Thursday, Dickinson said the weather and road conditions in Wallingford were not as severe as projected.

“The travel ban is based upon it being a blizzard, it wasn’t a blizzard,” Dickinson said.

About 7 inches of snow were reported in Wallingford, in addition to rain and freezing rain, according to the National Weather Service.

Dickinson said the majority of Town Hall employees did not report Tuesday.

Republican Councilor Tom Laffin said deciding whether to close Town Hall is “a tough situation on all counts.”

“I don’t envy anyone involved,” he said.

Chuck Ballard, president of a town union representing 125 employees, believes Dickinson didn’t close Town Hall to avoid paying town employees for not working Tuesday.

“It almost seems like the mayor puts his popularity with voters over the safety of employees,” said Ballard, president of AFSCME Co. 4 Local 1183, a union of public works, clerical and sewer employees.

In the past, arbitrators have upheld some, but not all, grievances filed by unions over whether employees should be paid when government is closed.

During a major snowstorm in February 2013, the last time a statewide travel ban was issued, Dickinson instructed town employees to not report to work. He later said employees who didn’t report must use a vacation day to be paid.

Several town unions filed grievances, which were handled by different arbitrators.

In one grievance, an arbitrator ordered the town to credit employees for used vacation time and lost wages.

In another grievance, an arbitrator ruled “the mayor had the management right to take an unprecedented step in an unprecedented circumstance.”

Ballard, whose union’s grievance was upheld, said, “after the arbitrator decision instructed him to pay everyone, (Dickinson) has kept town hall open” during hazardous weather.

The mayor said past rulings did influence his decision to keep Town Hall open.

“This is public’s not reasonable to pay someone for not working,” Dickinson said.

Assessor Shelby Jackson, president of a union representing 55 town managers, believes Town Hall should have been closed for non-essential employees Tuesday, but called Dickinson’s stance “understandable.”

“I understand it’s important to send a message that public employees should give a day’s work to earn a day’s pay. It’s a vacation day, it’s not the end of the world,” said Jackson, president of United Public Service Employees Union Local 424 Unit 17.

Some other towns, like Cheshire, pay employees who stay home when government is closed due to weather.

“A lot of it’s contractual,” Cheshire Human Resources Director Louis Zullo said.

If a non-essential employee suffers injury in a motor vehicle accident while driving to work in inclement weather, the town is not liable for damages, said Personnel Director Jim Hutt.

Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein, also a state representative, said though he was surprised to learn Town Hall remained open, he deferred judgment to Dickinson.

When making decisions about weather, Dickinson said he is skeptical of snow fall projections, which he said can often be misleading. Dickinson referenced a recent CBS News report that the National Weather Service knowingly misled the public with its blizzard forecasts this week.

The National Weather Service has denied the accusation, saying it kept predictions of snow high because it worried “a dramatic change in the snowfall forecast could produce an unwelcome result of less readiness and vigilance,” CBS reported.

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