NAPLES — A hearing scheduled for this morning could determine whether the city of Naples or the union representing the city's firefighters committed an unfair labor practice while negotiating a new contract.
But experts warn the hearing is far from the end of a months-long battle between the two sides, and instead it could be months before a final ruling is issued.
A hearing officer with the state's Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) is scheduled at 9 a.m. today to review unfair labor complaints filed by both city officials and the union.
Both complaints, filed earlier this year, state the other side didn't bargain in good faith. Both parties are asking a Tallahassee hearing officer to determine whether that is the case, and make a recommendation about how to proceed.
But the process isn't an easy or quick one.
"It's just like a trial," said Steve Meck, general counsel for the statewide agency.
Meck said the hearing officer is asked to find facts — through discovery and witnesses — during the hearing. The hearing officer then issues a recommended order. The city and the union will have about two weeks to respond to the recommendation, before it is sent to the state commission for a final order.
Meck said the state commission then has several months to rule.
Roger Reinke, assistant city manager and labor relations manager, said the city's ideal resolution is for the state commission to find that the city hasn't committed an unfair labor practice and allow negotiations to continue.
Adam Nadelman, the union's president, declined to comment on his expectations.
This is the first time in recent history that the city has been involved with this type of proceeding. But experts said these types of hearings aren't unusual, especially as public employers and unions grapple with the changing economy.
"It's fairly common throughout the state ... because of the economy," Meck said. "There's just not as much money out there as there used to be."
There currently are more than two dozen hearings — including one for the East Naples Fire Control & Rescue District — scheduled in January.
"There have been difficult times in recent years, and that has created more labor strife," said Benton Wood, an Orlando-based labor attorney.
Labor strife isn't new in Naples. While this may be the first time the city has been through a PERC hearing, it's no stranger to impasse hearings and contract battles.
The fire contract expired in September 2011 and both sides have spent much of the past year trying to negotiate a deal. A special magistrate was in Naples in August 2012 for an impasse hearing, and was asked to make recommendations on two issues — a safety and health provision and a pension provision. That recommendation has yet to be handed down, but Reinke said it could come soon.
The PERC hearing is at 9 a.m. today at Naples City Hall, Eighth Street South.