Meriden City Council votes unanimously to recognize Juneteenth holiday



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MERIDEN — The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday for city employees. 

The council’s vote came a few weeks after state lawmakers voted to recognize June 19 as an official state holiday. 

The vote to designate Juneteenth, as the day has long been known, as a state-recognized holiday was nearly unanimous in both chambers of the legislature. In 2021, federal lawmakers voted to recognize the holiday, commemorating the day, June 19, 1865, when Union Army troops arrived in Galveston, Texas bearing news that the Civil War had ended and that all enslaved African Americans had been freed. 

The council’s unanimous vote Monday night followed an extensive discussion that centered largely on whether the council should pause on recognizing the holiday as an additional paid day off for employees and instead substitute that holiday for another paid holiday previously negotiated with city employee unions. 

Councilor Bruce A. Fontanella made a three-point motion, which the council ultimately rejected, that would have recognized Juneteenth as an unpaid holiday for the current year. The motion would have instructed City Manager Timothy Coon to reopen negotiations with the unions to substitute June 19 with an existing paid holiday, and to “report to the council on his success within two months.”

Fontanella made the motion a few minutes after stating he was in favor of the city recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Fontanella also asked whether city officials had included in their budget an additional $70,000 — the amount officials expect to pay in new overtime costs as a result of the holiday.

Coon said overtime costs related to the holiday had been already calculated within current overtime costs. 

“We felt this is within the capability of current overtime costs for this fiscal year and next fiscal year,” Coon said. He explained further that city officials do not calculate specific overtime costs for each individual paid holiday. Those costs, Coon said, are rolled into a general overtime line. 

Fontanella later in the exchange, said he thinks Juneteenth “should be substituted for another paid legal holiday, so that we don't increase the number of paid legal holidays in Meriden.”

At that point Fontanella asked Coon whether he had discussions with city union officials about that potential substitution.  

“The answer to that is ‘no,’ ” Coon responded, adding that the language in the city’s current contracts is “very specific in dealing with holidays.”

Coon said language around unforeseen national and state holidays is consistent across contracts in that “each employee shall receive an additional holiday,” in the event an unforeseen holiday is newly recognized.

The Record-Journal later reviewed one such contract, the city’s current contract with its police union, Local #1016 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 4, which was signed in 2021, regarding that “unforeseen holiday” language.

The contract’s language appeared to corroborate Coon’s answer. It states, “In the event of an unforeseen national or state holiday that is declared as such and is in fact celebrated by the municipality, each employee shall receive an additional day of holiday pay, whether or not the employee worked on said date.”

On Monday night, Coon said it would be “extremely unwieldy and a recipe for failure” to have to go renegotiate each existing contract regarding that language. 

“If it’s Council’s directive to ask unions to give back a day, then we will do so,” Coon said, before stating, “the language was pretty clear in its contracts what we need to do to deal with this.”

Fontanella, a moment later, responded, “It's not giving back a day, it's substituting a day.”

Minority Party leader Dan Brunet said he too had concerns about adding a paid holiday to what he called “an already generous package.”

But, Brunet said, he thinks it would be difficult to go to each union to renegotiate contract language around the new holiday. 

Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona agreed with Brunet’s assessment. 

“Only because the contract’s been negotiated. The union has no incentive to open up negotiations for a potential side letter.” 

Cardona said while he understood the points Fontanella raised, the resolution itself is “important enough to move forward on. I will not be supporting the amendment.” 

Meaning behind resolution

Majority Leader Sonya Jelks, during the discussion around the amendment, which she did not support, sought to remind the council body why it was discussing the recognition of Juneteenth in the first place.

Jelks said the purpose of the city’s recognition of the holiday is to celebrate “all aspects, all histories and all people of our community.”

Jelks asked that the council recognize the importance of celebrating those histories, including difficult and tragic histories, like slavery. 

“This celebration of Juneteenth doesn’t just lay in the difficult discussion of slavery — it actually celebrates the freedom that most African American people recognize as true freedom,” Jelks said. 

Jelks described Juneteenth as an important holiday, much like the Fourth of July, which she said is a “celebration of all American freedom.” 

“But we want to make sure that history is also being taught. A lot is the history of where we were as a country then, and where we are now,” Jelks said, describing Juneteenth as a “celebration of culture.”

The city does not have a dedicated cultural event around Black culture, Jelks noted. 

“In the same way we celebrate lots of other things, this will give support to something important and will reflect well for our children, who will see themselves finally reflected in history,” Jelks said.

‘Long overdue’

Councilor Yvette Cortez agreed, describing the holiday as not just important for the city’s Black community members, but the community overall. 

“This is very much long overdue,” she said. 

During the discussion, questions emerged over whether city recognition of the holiday would impact the Board of Education’s agreements with its unions. 

Officials did not have a clear answer around that impact, while noting that the holiday would fall around the beginning of summer vacation. 

“I would not anticipate seeing the Board of Education incur a significant cost for the June 19th holiday,” Coon said.

Reporter Michael Gagne can be reached at mgagne@record-journal.com.



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