Legislature fires labor lawyer
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO May 20, 2008 After more than 20 years of service, the law firm of Roemer, Wallens and Mineaux LLP is no longer Sullivan County’s labor negotiator.
On Thursday, seven of the nine legislators agreed to seek another attorney to represent the county’s interests during current contract negotiations with labor unions.
“We just thought we’d move in another direction,” said Legislature Vice Chair Ron Hiatt, adding he didn’t “want to cast a shadow on a guy.” “Sometimes you’re not sympatico with a person. That doesn’t mean the person’s not a competent professional.”
The person to whom Hiatt referred is attorney Jim Roemer, a well-known figure in labor circles. In fact, he’s just filed suit against the state over its investigation into his and other lawyers’ alleged collection of pension points, the argument hinging on whether or not they are public employees or independent contractors in their work with municipalities.
County officials said that suit had no bearing on their decision, but some did fault Roemer in his duties with Sullivan, for which he was paid $72,000 last year.
“It was a communications issue,” remarked Minority Leader Leni Binder. “We felt the unions had communicated issues to him that weren’t related back to the Legislature.”
“We no longer had confidence that he could negotiate in the best interests of the county,” added Majority Leader Kathy LaBuda, saying Roemer was headed in a direction not set by legislators.
Roemer could not be reached for comment, but union leaders noted that frustration and said they’d work with whomever the county wished to bring on board.
“Apparently he didn’t satisfy their expectations,” remarked Teamsters Local 445 Business Agent Lou Setren, who is hopeful negotiations will continue to move along at an even faster pace.
Setren said several legislators had been considering the matter for some time, having promised the unions during last year’s election season that they’d seriously review Roemer’s effectiveness and act accordingly.
“This is not a surprise,” affirmed Legislator Jodi Goodman. “He is not a great communicator.”
Contract negotiations have been going slowly, even motivating the unions to join forces. It apparently motivated the Legislature, as well.
“I felt it was time for a change,” said Legislator David Sager, a thought echoed by fellow Legislator Elwin Wood.
“Certainly in the past he has been an asset to us,” Legislator Frank Armstrong remarked of Roemer. “During this negotiation, however, it seemed as though there was a disconnect between the information conveyed by the unions to Mr. Roemer and the information Mr. Roemer conveyed to the Legislature.”
But there apparently was also a disconnect between the legislators. Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis, a Democrat, and Legislator Alan Sorensen, a Republican, both voted against the resolution.
Sorensen said he voted “no” because he had just been shown the document an hour before the vote.
“I was not involved in the discussion on this,” he explained. “I just question what specific issues led to the resolution.”
Rouis, on the other hand, didn’t want to see Roemer go.
“He has the reputation of being one of the best in his field,” said the chair.
Rouis remarked that he was comfortable with Roemer because the attorney had seen the county through four sets of contract negotiations.
But now, he and other county officials must search for a new labor attorney, a process that will take at least until the end of the month, he said.
In other Legislature news
• A moment of silence preceded Thursday’s full Legislature meeting in honor of Democratic Elections Commissioner and Party Chair Tim Hill, who just passed away.
A memorial resolution was also read and presented to his widow, Chris.
• Legislators unanimously agreed to expand the Industrial Development Agency’s board from seven to nine members.
• Sorensen was the lone dissenter on a resolution to bond nearly $9 million to pay for various capital improvements, including the design of the new jail.
He said he voted “no” because there were needless “small dollar amounts” piggybacked on the resolution, expressing his concern with how large the county’s debt is growing (it now stands at more than $80 million, he said).
• Sorensen and Hiatt again voted against permitting county officials to continue the application to expand the landfill in Monticello.
Both legislators represent constituents who live around the landfill.