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Dispute May Further Stymie Contract Talks


SIMI VALLEY — A dispute between a city councilman and a union leader here is threatening to complicate already stalled contract negotiations between the city and its employees.

The conflict started with a chance meeting in front of City Hall between Councilman Bill Davis and union leader Barry Hammitt, who represents some of the more than 250 non-management city employees.

Hammitt wanted to discuss the negotiations, Davis said, and asked if he supported setting up a union shop.

"I told him that none of the council members had ever supported that idea," Davis said.

"Well, maybe we need some new council members in November" is what Davis remembers Hammitt saying.

"Well, take your best shot. Union bosses have never controlled the outcome of elections here," is how Davis said he responded.

Hammitt confirmed the exchange but said he was not threatening Davis.

"That was the furthest thing from my mind," Hammitt said. "It was a casual encounter in the parking lot. I'd been trying to get a few minutes to talk to him and he didn't want to talk."

But Davis was so irate that he quickly shot off a sharply worded letter to the union leader.

Hammitt, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Local 998, responded in kind. Local 998 also represents employees in all non-management positions in the county and in Moorpark, Thousand Oaks, Port Hueneme, Oxnard and Ventura.

The bickering follows negotiations that have been rockier than usual, both sides agree. The talks, which began in earnest in early May, will continue with meetings scheduled for late Wednesday and all day Thursday. The city had set a deadline of next Tuesday to sign a new contract, but Hammitt said that an agreement is not likely by then.

Hammitt said that because the exchange had become public, it might actually strengthen the union membership, whose two-year contract is up July 1.

Union membership has increased 40% in the last 1 1/2 years, Hammitt said.

"It may have a more positive effect from my standpoint and a more negative one from Mr. Davis'," Hammitt said. "If the city's elected officials want to make this an issue, then given what I know, [the employees] will probably be galvanized by it."

No city officials, including negotiator Laura Herron, would comment on the status of the talks, citing a gag agreement.

Traditionally, the city has had a good relationship with its employees. Two years ago, the monthlong haggling over contract terms ended with the non-management employees all receiving a 2.5% across-the-board salary increase.

Hammitt said the negotiations might be a bit more heated this year because both sides have new negotiators. Local 998 has only been representing Simi Valley city employees for about a year. Before, a labor negotiator from Hanford, Calif., represented the employees.

On the city's side, assistant city manager Herron has not negotiated with the employees before.

"If we had worked on the contract together two years ago and gotten the chance to get some history there, I don't think it would have taken this long," Hammitt said.

The friction between Hammitt and Davis is ironic, because when Davis ran for a seat on the County Board of Supervisors six years ago, he got help from Hammitt and the union.

"I thought we had had a better relationship," Hammitt said.

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