Union disputes county hiring practices

ESCANABA – County employees, union members and local union supporters gathered Tuesday for an informational picket outside the Delta County Courthouse prior to Tuesday’s county board meeting.

The picket was intended to make county taxpayers aware of concerns about actions and practices by the current county board of commissioners, according to Christine Pepin, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2755.

“We feel it’s important that the taxpayers know what’s going on,” said Pepin. “We voted these people into office. It’s important that we do our due diligence as voters and make sure that our rights are being represented, not just as employees, but as voters.”

During the county board meeting, she addressed the board with several ongoing concerns of unfair hiring practices and handling of county finances. One of these mostly involved the hiring of County Administrator Nora Viau’s son for an airport specialist position at the Delta County Airport last year.

“When two employees at the airport retired last year, union members had some questions,” she said. “We looked into the matter and were concerned with what we found.”

Pepin highlighted email communication the union had obtained between Michigan Works! employees and Viau.

One email highlighted that due to union contract, the county could not post the open airport positions until they received written letters of intent for potential retirees.

However, resumes were chosen in March.

Pepin said Viau submitted an application via email on behalf of her son after Michigan Works! had already chosen resumes. In the email, Viau did not disclose her relationship to him.

“She remained involved as administrator throughout the process, securing the funding, interviewing the candidates for training and choosing the new hires, all in her capacity as administrator,” said Pepin. “Nowhere in the emails we obtained does she disclose that one of the candidates is an immediate family member.”

Ultimately Viau’s son and three other candidates for the position were sent to Minnesota for the aircraft rescue and firefighting training.

Viau’s son was eventually hired for one of the two open spots.

“I would hope that the citizens of this county who have family members needing work will get a fair chance at job openings at the county,” said Pepin. “I don’t believe this board wants any prejudice in its hiring practices and the employees and public would certainly agree all hirings should be done in a fair manner.”

Viau declined to comment on Pepin’s address to the board aside from saying she can see where the hiring process came across as questionable.

When asked if the county could be more transparent in the future, Viau said the board is open to suggestions.

“I think that the board’s willing to try anything,” she said. “We try to put as much out there as we can.”

Pepin also questioned the board approving $62,000 for maintenance – $14,000 of which was provided as a raise to the head of maintenance. The other $48,000 was designated for the creation of an assistant maintenance director job.

“A more efficient use of that money would be to bring back our two maintenance people and if their head of maintenance decides to retire at any point…then bring in a new person to train,” she said during the picket. “They continue to throw money after they get rid of six people, then they turn around and come up with $62,000. That’s two people for us – two maintenance techs. Put them back to work.”

She also questioned why the board had not chosen to put a vacancy of a board position on the November ballot following the resignation of former Commissioner Ryan Holm rather than appoint a replacement.

Other concerns Pepin voiced included rising attorney costs for the county, a recent civil rights complaint filed against her and another union official, and the board’s use of the road patrol millage to pay legal costs due to contract disputes.

Viau said the civil rights complaint is still in the investigative stages. In regard to the road patrol millage, Viau said an attorney was not hired until arbitration under Act 312 was filed.

“When they filed for 312 arbitration, that’s when an attorney was hired and no road patrol millage was ever used for the road patrol arbitration,” she said. “After that arbitration was done, that’s when the board put the road patrol on notice that said any more legal fees would come out of the road patrol.”

Pepin said all these issues facing the county are adding up and costing tax dollars that could be better spent on running the county.

“It is time that we all work together to insure a fair and transparent county for all residents to participate and voice their concerns no matter what the circumstance,” she said to the board, which was applauded by several members of the public attending the meeting.