Thursday, July 02, 2015
Brown Wants to Reneg on 4.5% Raise For 17 Magisterial Workers
On April 16, Northampton County Council voted unanimously to approve across-the-board payhikes, averaging 4.5%, for 228 County workers in 14 different clerical job titles. Deputy Administrator Cathy Allen told Council it would cost about $307,000, and would be above and beyond whatever was being negotiated in union contracts. A human resources memo complained that "the county has struggled in recruiting and maintaining staff in many of the clerical positions throughout the county." A "more fair and equitable pay rate" was proposed for some of the "lower level clerical positions," which affect both union and non-union workers. When I read that, I assumed that all clerical positions were considered "lower level," as compared to other job classifications, which offer higher rates of pay. I assumed all of them were getting raises, including 17 clerks who work for magisterial district judges and are topped out at $19.20 per hour. After all, the living wage for a single mother with one child is $22.33 per hour in Northampton County. This increase would change the top salary to $20.64 per hour, which is still below the living wage, but would be "more fair and equitable" and would help to maintain more experienced people.These positions were all specifically listed in the memo voted on by Council. Now, the John Brown administration is calling it a "scrivener's error" and wants to roll back those raises. Solicitor Ryan Durkin called it a "payraise that was never intended to be made."
What surprised me is that some people actually agreed with this argument, which is nonsense, as a matter of law.
A scrivener's error is a typo, the kind of mistake that usually occurs in copying legal descriptions in deeds although it can occur in other matters like settlement offers. According to what is known as the doctrine of scrivener's error, it can only be corrected by evidence that is clear, convincing, and precise. There is nothing convincing, clear or precise about the evidence surrounding this payhike.
The proof of that is Hayden Phillips, Council's most conservative member. After listening to the dioscussion for about thirty minutes he admitted that "I'm totally confused." Had this really been a scrivener's error, the mistake would be obvious.
In fairness, some Council members like Scott Parsons did believe that the raise was intended only to apply to entry level clerks. But others like Lamont McClure believed that "lower level clerical positions" applied to all clerical positions, which are lower on the totem pole than other job classifications. He pointed out that there had been a record number of retirements the previous year, and thought this payraise was an attempt to keep more experienced workers in the fold.
Speaking on behalf of these 17 workers was Bethlehem Attorney Chris Spadoni. He's been an Assistant DA, Chief Public Defender, Assistant County Solicitor and served as Bethlehem's City Council Solicitor for 17 years. he knows a little bit about municipal law, and was unaware that the Brown administration would try to go back on this payraise until 6 am that morning. He pointed out simply that Council voted for a 4.5% payhike for these 17people, and they are entitled to it. He added these workers are the "front line" of our judicial system.
That meant nothing to Mat Benol, who had hung a plaque containing the Ten Commandments on the wall before the meeting and then took a picture of it with his cell phone. He and Seth Vaughn both spoke of being from the private sector. "When you're at the top of the payscale, you're at the top of the payscale," reasoned Vaughn. "No raise." Benol complained that these workers were engaged in an "opportunistic attempt" to capitalize on someone's error, and later added that this would just open the floodgates to everyone rushing in to demand more money.
This drew the ire of Ken Kraft, who pointed out that the total amount of money involved is $31,000. "We're not talking about 3,000 people like in some hypothetical crazy idea," he observed. "We're talking about people at $19.00," echoed McClure. "I have not heard much outrage about people getting $100,000... The fact of the matter is that these are people."
As the discussion continued, confusion increased. Council voted 5-4 to table the matter and refer it to Ken Kraft's Personnel Committee. McClure joined Benol, Vaughn and Glenn Geissinger in voting against the motion to table, but that's because he appeared to be ready to reject any resolution that withdrew the payhike.
After the meeting was over, some of these impacted magisterial district judge employees had a rare informal discussion with Executive John Brown and Council members Scott Parsons and Bob Werner. Brown could be heard telling these workers that they are appreciated, and they seemed to make some headway in resolving their differences. Brown was asked about better security measures for magisterial employees, and said he would look into any proposal he receives. Magisterial District Judge employee Linda Sweeney sounded hopeful.
Spadoni had earlier told Council, quoting former Executive Jerry Seyfried, that nobody wins when there are lawsuits involving different branches of government.