ISHPEMING - After voting to negotiate a settlement with police Chief Jim Bjorne at last week's meeting, the Ishpeming City Council has voted 3-2 against approving a transfer of service time in exchange for the cessation of litigation against the city.
The council met for an hour this morning at the city hall to discuss the agreement, which failed with Councilwoman Elaine Racine, Councilwoman Claudia Demarest and Councilman Mike Tall voting against and Mayor Pat Scanlon and Councilman John Stone voting in favor.
"I'm confused because this council one week ago, after coming out of closed session, authorized the manager to negotiate with me," Bjorne said following the meeting. "To have the same council vote against it is bewildering, to say the least."
Bjorne said that while he had put his discrimination and workman's comp claims against the city on hold when the city agreed to negotiate, that litigation will now proceed as before.
Bjorne, who has been experiencing back problems, had requested the transfer of just under four years of service time from the Marquette County Sheriff's Office, which would have allowed him to retire with a full pension in April when he turned 50.
In January of this year, Bjorne requested a special council meeting to discuss his medical issues and his request for the retirement transfer with the council, which had already been approved by the Ishpeming Police and Fire Retirement System and the Marquette County Board.
That discussion was tabled until the February meeting, where the vote ended in a tie. In March, the transfer was again put before the council, then failing by a vote of 3-2, with council members Racine, Demarest and Tall voting against and Scanlon and Stone voting in favor, the same grouping as today's vote.
Accepting the transfer would means the IPFRS also accepts an unfunded liability of $25,283.
Council members who voted against the settlement said the acceptance of that unfunded liability, which is estimated by an actuarial study based on life expectancy, was their main concern.
"For the city to put itself in the position of setting a precedent in doing a transfer that's never been done before and the money it could cost the city, I have to vote in favor of the taxpayer," Racine said.
Although Racine, Tall and Demarest all voted in favor of having City Manager Jered Ottenwess negotiate with Bjorne, all three said they had not had enough time to look over the agreement, which they said was emailed to them at around 5 p.m. Tuesday.
"When we voted yes (to the negotiation), they had no plan. We hadn't seen a contract," Racine said. "We were voting for something in the dark."
"There were so many things in here that I had questions about," she said, referencing wording in the agreement.
Stone and Scanlon, who have both voted consistently in favor of the transfer, both expressed frustration at the council's decision.
"I'm willing to listen to any council member. Maybe I'm missing something, but explain something to me. We just sit here and nobody says a word ... This is where we take care of city business," Stone said. "If you're for or against, I don't care, I'll respect your vote. But if you're not going to give an explanation, I refuse to respect your vote."
Stone said he felt accepting the transfer would be in line with what the city has done previously for employees.
"I don't think anyone should have their pension messed with when it's time to go," he said.
Racine said she wanted to see that practice stopped.
"That's why I ran for city council. Because I wanted to put an end to this. It's always been give, give, give. And that is why I ran. It has to come to an end somewhere. That's why our city streets, our sewer system, our water system are in the shape they are. It's always been give, give give," she said.
Stone, however, said he felt the city would end up losing further money if and when the issue of the transfer goes as far as a trial.
"It's a sad day in Ishpeming and I hope our voting block can explain to the taxpayers in the city of Ishpeming when we end up paying thousands and thousands of dollars that we do not have. Because I personally believe this city will not prevail in a court of law," Stone said.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.