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OUR VIEW: City, union should sit down in good faith on fire boats

THE ISSUE: Streator, union at odds over boats

OUR VIEW: Time for an overdue discussion about how to implement new gear

There are not a lot of fond feelings between Streator City Hall and members of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 56. Public meetings are tense, social media gets heated and both the firefighters and City Manager Scot Wrighton are unafraid to make public statements that pick and poke at the other side. 

The latest issue — which agency will formally own two new crowdfunded boats and assorted river rescue equipment — is a microcosm of the larger debate over what the union should be expected to do and how much that work should cost the city. It’s an extremely local issue, but also one inextricably wrapped up in the much broader, statewide problem of public employee pension funding and whether or not taxpayers can afford to keep promises legislators made over many years of collective bargaining.

If we view both the union and Wrighton in the best possible light, each side can be seen as a champion for the people. The firefighters simply want to do what they do best: keep their friends and neighbors safe. The manager is trying to live up to his charge to run a city within its means.

And so it is with the boats: a local family led the charge to raise tens of thousands of dollars because they feel the loved one they lost earlier this year might be alive had there been proper rescue equipment in town. The firefighters stand ready to use the gear should the need arise. Wrighton agrees the investment makes sense but thinks the most practical arrangement is to have the boats owned by the statewide mutual aid system. They would be based in Streator but able to be used regionally as needed.

On the surface, the sticking point is the firefighters’ concern about equipment it maintains but does not own. They say having the city own the boats guarantees they stay in Streator for the people who paid for them through donations, rather than bounce throughout other county departments. Wrighton said the boats could be handled just like the other mutually owned items without much hassle. A perfectly reasonable solution might be something in writing between the city and mutual aid system to assure the boats are never more than a few minutes away from Streator’s waters.

But this is not just a surface issue, and so both sides are taking shots — Wrighton saying the firefighters only want to own the boats so they can again try to amend their pay structure, the union saying the city doesn’t want the boats — and then each side responding to the attacks with counter allegations and before long a beautiful gesture like raising $100,000 to memorialize a young man becomes just another uncivil spat.

This all could have been avoided with some discussions when the fundraising began several months ago. We feel the people of Streator would have given generously regardless, but we certainly understand the frustrations of those who feel like perhaps the goalposts shifted after they cut a check (and everyone has a stake, considering the city made a general fund outlay to the boat campaign). But that ship has long since sailed, and here we sit, with more anger than would seem necessary.

At this point, the City Council needs to sit down with Wrighton, firefighter union leadership and the family that led the fundraising. It’s not too late to discuss how this equipment will be purchased, where it will live and who will hold the title. This conversation can and should be conducted in good faith and independently of the ongoing unfair labor practices complaint pending with a state board. And then whatever is decided can be put in writing, subject to a formal vote of council approval, that makes everything legally binding and protects any party from raising a stink somewhere down the road.

We’d like to believe everyone involved wants the best for Streator and its people, even as the varied interests have their own ways to define that concept. And hopefully a commitment to compromise on this issue could be the first step toward warmer relations between labor and management. That won’t happen overnight, but it’s a goal we think the city’s residents would like to see pursued in earnest.

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