The city declared impasse about two hours after labor negotiations began with the fire union -- which has been successfully battling attempts for the last few years to cut firefighters' benefits without showing cause and which had brought a proposal to save $600,000 a year to the table. That's good faith. But the meeting would have probably ended even sooner if not for the reporter or reporters that attended, to the surprise of the city's attorneys who now had to make it look real. Because it was really just more theatrics in another episode of As Hialeah Churns.
That impasse was premeditated, and not just moments before the bargaining session, although Ladra suspects that if someone made a public records request (read: done) for Grodnick's computer history from Wednesday morning, one will find the impasse document created or at least tinkered with before the meeting. But, it's actually been part of the plan since intern mayor Carlos Hernandez and the Three Blind Mice -- Finance Director Vivian Parks, Budget Director Alex Vega and Water and Sewer Director Armando Vidal -- realized just how bad the city's financial crisis is (read: you ain't seen nothin' yet, folks) and decided, more importantly, they had to find someone to blame in the eyes of the voting public in what promises to be a particularly pissy election year.
Enter the increasingly influential firefighters' union. They've been a stubborn thorn in the side of the administration for years, arguably costing one-time county mayoral front-runner Julio Robaina the election, forcing the city to hire back 16 firefighters that were illegally fired by Robaina for political motivations and generally annoying the hell out of city officials with pointed public records requests and demands for financial transparency. So they're perfect scapegoats. Imagine this "mayor's conference room powwow" episode on As Hialeah Churns:
- Hernandez: "The *&^%$#@ firefighters are perfect! Hell, we can turn the other employees against them because they are the only ones who haven't made any &^%$#@ sacrifices." (Whispered: "*&^%$#@ celebrated a^%$#les think they're better than cops.")
- Parks: "Well, sir, actually, and as we have explained to you five or six times each, the firefighters are the only ones we haven't been able to take concessions from."
- Vega: "Yet. But maybe there is a way we might make it happen before the November elections. Maybe." (Inner voice, without his lips moving: "And we can all keep our jobs a little longer.")
- Hernandez (watching a couple lizards go at it on a tree outside the window): "I'm listening."
- Vidal: "Can I have the rest of that sandwich?" (Takes half of Vega's sandwich without waiting for a response).
- Hernandez: "Well, Alex?"
- Vega:"Sure, he can have it."
- Hernandez: "No, your idea to save our jobs."
- Vega: "It's actually Vivian's idea."
- Parks (shakes her head): "Armando told me." (Everyone looks at Vidal, gnawing at the sandwich in oblivion, and then back at Parks with a 'yeah, right' face). "Okay, Bill told me.
- City Attorney William Grodnick, who has been sitting at the end of the table unnoticed: "It's rather easy and genius, if I do say so myself. We declare impasse, no matter what, just declare impasse and then we impose on them whatever cuts we want. To make it more credible, Carlos (and the actor playing Grodnick slows his speech) you will issue a media alert a week or two earlier, next Monday in fact, denouncing the fire union's refusal to respond to our five requests for a meeting to discuss their contract. It's classic media crisis management: We force them to defend themselves. We are the alpha dog."
- Hernandez: "But we did meet. Then I told them to hold off until after the county election."
- 'Grodnick: "Who cares? Who knows that for a fact? They will still be in a defensive mode. And some people will believe it. You are the mayor. Put it out on an official media alert. It's official. The media is lazy and stupid anyway."
- Hernandez: "But the ^&%$#@ bomberos did respond, didn't they? Hey, wait, didn't we even meet with them once?"
- Grodnick: (Sigh) "That's not the point. We put it out with our spin, the TV soundbites and radio briefs will eat it up. People are sick of public employees with fat paychecks." (Under his breath) "As long as it's not public lawyers with fat six-figure paychecks." (Back to his normal voice) "They'll buy this."
- Hernandez: "We're selling something else to make up the budget gap? Great idea!"
- Parks shakes her head.
- Vega slumps his shoulders.
- Vidal freezes in motion momentarily, then pops the last bite of sandwich into his mouth.
- Grodnick: "No, Carlos. Just trust me. Issue the media alert. Then we can agree to a forensic audit, because it will never happen before we declare impasse. Then have a press conference to discuss the city's financial situation, but make sure you blame the firefighters for the bulk of the shortfall. Yeah, that should do it. First, the media alert that puts them on defensive. Second, agree to their demands for transparency, which makes you the good guy. Third, blame them for the shortfall, which makes them the target."
Remember at the beginning of the conference room scene, someone said action must be taken before November? That's because of the elections in which Hernandez could lose his $190,000 job. Impasse could allow the mayor to flex his muscles in front of voters by imposing pay cuts on the firefighters, like the 17 percent cuts illegally imposed on the general employees (which was ruled by PERC an unfair labor practice -- surprise, surprise -- and will end up costing the city millions it does not have). That, my dear handlers and fans, is the end game. Why would the city want to do that again? If it's going to be ruled illegal anyway and they'll have to pay more in the end? Maybe 'cause that end could come post election. It only has to look real for a few months.
But the press and the public appear to be on to the city's plans -- especially after Hernandez refused to answer questions about the city's finances at a press conference he announced Thursday for Friday so he could repeat practiced soundbites (read: campaign opportunity) about no tax increases and vague plans to fix city finances -- and have already started to ask more questions.
Let's hope they demand answers and transparency that aren't staged to simply look real.