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Newly elected Watertown councilors say city misstepped on firefighter overtime decision

Julia Botero
WRVO News File Photo

Watertown's local fire union endorsed two candidates for city council this year, neither were the incumbents who have been on the council for the past three years while the city and union battled over a new contract. 

Both of those challengers won, including Lisa Ruggiero, who says the city's leaders should have recognized the results when they considered the decision to break its firefighter union contract by not paying for sick leave.

"It almost seems like this is their maybe the last chance with the incumbents to take action on something and start this before the new council people take office," Ruggiero said. "It just it one would have to question the judgment on this."

Watertown Mayor Joe Butler says this decision was not politically motivated. It's something he says city leaders have been considering for months, and has everything to do with weighing public safety and the city's finances.

Before the new policy took effect last week, Watertown would pay other firefighters overtime to fill in for their sick colleagues so there was at least 15 personnel on a given shift. That minimum staffing clause is part of the union's contract and a large reason the city thinks the fire department's overtime costs have ballooned. They reached $650,000 last year.

Butler says that policy is no longer enforceable regardless of the election results.

"I’m not going to burden the taxpayer with a unreasonable contract just because a few people think it’s the popular thing to do," Butler said. 

Ryan Henry-Wilkinson the other recently elected councilor that the union backed says this is about more than what he calls the message that voters sent. It's about maintaining the safety of the city's firefighters and residents.

This latest development in the contract dispute, which is in arbitration after years of negotiations broke down, is further proof to Henry-Wilkinson that the city needs to replace the city manager with a full-time mayor.

"We have a trust gap in the city of Watertown," Henry-Wilkinson said. "People don’t trust their leaders to listen to them, to represent them fully."

Henry-Wilkinson says he will call for a charter commission to look at a full-time mayor when he assumes office next year. And Ruggiero says she may call for the new council to rescind the city's overtime decision at that time.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.