City Council turns down collective bargaining, adopts ceasefire resolution

Harrisonburg’s Public Safety Building (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

Officers in the Harrisonburg Police Department and other city employees cannot form collective bargaining units after city council members voted against a proposed ordinance. 

The council members, however, approved several other initiatives at Tuesday night’s meeting, including multiple public infrastructure projects and a resolution supporting calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Collective bargaining doesn’t pass

Collective bargaining efforts to allow HPD officers to form a union began last year when 65 officers signed a petition and sent it to City Manager Ande Banks in December. This followed a 2020 amendment to the Virginia State Code that extended collective bargaining rights to municipal employees in Virginia — but only with a city council’s approval. 

The issue first came up during the Jan. 23 council meeting, but members decided to hold off on the matter while city staff gathered more information on how collective bargaining might affect city offices. 

City Attorney Chris Brown told the council Tuesday that allowing collective bargaining wouldn’t meaningfully improve conditions for HPD employees — including leading to increased salary and benefits — but could significantly strain city finances. 

”[City Manager Ande Banks] and staff have taken great lengths to ensure that city employees, including HPD officers, receive a competitive salary,” Brown said.

Retention and recruitment of HPD officers was one reason the petition cited for allowing collective bargaining. Brown said his staff found that hasn’t been an issue in Harrisonburg, as staff numbers improved since the COVID-19 pandemic and after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, which prompted some officers to leave the profession. 

“As City Council knows, 2020 and 2021 were tough years for retaining police officers, and Harrisonburg wasn’t immune from that,” Brown said. “The recruitment process since then has significantly improved. That kind of change has really paid off.” 

He expects that HPD will be close to fully-staffed within the next year. 

The potential costs the city would incur with a collective bargaining ordinance were among the most pressing concerns, Brown said. This came primarily from surveying other localities across Virginia that adopted ordinances, which he estimated would cost the city around $500,000 in administrative labor as well as the need to hire a Labor Relations Manager and contracting with outside consultants to navigate bargaining talks. 

”The truth is, no one knows exactly how much this is going to cost,” Brown said. “All the localities that have agreed to collective bargaining have had to raise taxes, cut services, or both. It would not be good for the city to spend that money each year just for a bureaucracy that would not be necessary.”

Additionally, he said it could potentially be a divisive issue not only in the police department, but in other city departments if some employees want to pursue collective bargaining and others don’t.

“We’d be naive to assume that if City Council approves this, that HPD would be the only department with a collective bargaining unit,” Brown said.

However, while the council followed the staff’s recommendations to deny the collective bargaining ordinance, that doesn’t mean any efforts for city employees to form a union would be dead in the water. 

Council member Dany Fleming said if employment benefits change, employees could petition for collective bargaining again. 

“A future council isn’t beholden to what a current council is, and we don’t know what a future council would decide regarding benefits,” Fleming said.

Vice Mayor Laura Dent moved to deny the request, provided that the city manager’s office form a committee to navigate conversations around collective bargaining issues by April, when city council members would have been required to give their final vote on the matter. She added that the request came at a time when many of the concerns outlined in the petition were already being addressed. 

“Part of the issue is the timing was off,” Dent said. “It’s too soon to tell for anyone if they want collective bargaining, or if they need it at all.”

Council adopts Gaza ceasefire resolution

Harrisonburg City Council unanimously passed a formal resolution calling on the federal government to order a ceasefire in Gaza and Israel, making Harrisonburg the first city in Virginia to do so.

Council members drafted their own resolution after they received two drafts from community members who are concerned about the conflict. Harrisonburg residents, including those from both the Jewish and Palestinian communities, showed up at the last two city council meetings in droves urging city council to call for a ceasefire. 

Mayor Deanna Reed, who has facilitated community talks with Palestinian and Jewish residents in Harrisonburg over the past month, said the council’s resolution was drafted to minimize damage and be as inclusive as possible

“I’m in this position to use my platform to help those who need me, and I take that very seriously,” Reed said. “I’m not a fan of resolutions, but I understand a resolution is necessary for many of you, and as your Mayor, it is important for me that I understand your pain.”

Dent, who has a background in technical writing, penned the resolution with help from council member Monica Robinson. She said that the purpose was to address the community’s pain over the conflict between Israel and Palestine. 

“Our primary audience we’re writing to is the federal government, but our secondary audience is our community: you,” Dent said. “Our purpose is for healing of the community to whatever degree we can accomplish that.”

Before the vote, council member Chris Jones encouraged the dozens of community members who filled the council chambers to channel that same passion into issues central to Harrisonburg.

“We need to see you participating on the local level with the same amount of passion to show up and communicate, and act,” Jones said. “As you made time to be here with this resolution, make time to be here when we do the budget. If your voice could get this resolution passed, imagine what your voice could do on a consistent basis for your community, and then you could see the gravity of politics.”

Following the meeting, Reed left for Washington, D.C., for a different matter but plans to hand-deliver the resolution to the offices of Virginia U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

Public works projects

  • The council granted an easement for Columbia Gas to install, maintain and operate a natural gas pipeline downtown. This would entail Columbia Gas doing extensive work in the South Main Street Parking lot between Clementine and Jimmy Madison’s. The mainline replacement is for Sentara RMH Medical Center, which is preparing to set up an office 25 West Water Street, the former site of the Harrisonburg Rockingham Free Clinic. 
  • City Council approved spending $117,870 dollars in Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds awarded to the city to install a 50 kilowatt solar system on the Turner Pavilion rooftop. The project would offset all energy usage for the pavilion, in addition to generating surplus energy that would be returned to the electrical grid as “community solar.”
  • Andrea Dono, executive director of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, presented two public art projects in the works for downtown Harrisonburg, including designs for banners that will be displayed on the city’s utility poles in the coming months. The banners reflect elements of the city’s culture. The second is a project still in early development in which the city’s traffic cabinet utility boxes will be painted to celebrate the identity of downtown Harrisonburg. This is expected to take place over the next year, as HDR is beginning their search for artists to paint the utility boxes. 

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