In front of a standing-room-only audience -- seven holding informational picket signs -- the Sharon Board of Selectmen Tuesday night voted to enter executive session to discuss, but not vote on, a tentative two-year deal that would increase the municipal employees' health insurance costs.
The vote happened after more than 100 Sharon town and school employees demonstrated in front of the Sharon Town Offices, many holding "Solidarity Forever. Treat Town Employees with Dignity & Respect. Affordable Healthcare" signs and chanting slogans. The rally and picket lasted at least 90 minutes. And the chants, such as "Health care for all. Don't drop the ball," were heard loudly in the second-floor meeting room where selectmen met.
Selectmen Chairman Richard Powell said the possibility existed that selectmen would "still have some outstanding questions" after their closed-door discussion.
Selectmen have posted a meeting for Thursday, for that reason, Powell said.
That selectmen didn't vote wasn't really surprising, said Pete Schoonmaker, spokesman for the Sharon Public Employee Committee. Last Wednesday, this committee, which had representatives from each of Sharon's 14 collective bargaining units, and its retirees, reached the tentative agreement with the Sharon Insurance Advisory Committee: Town Administrator Benjamin Puritz, Sharon Finance Director William Fowler, town labor attorney Kevin Bresnahan and town health insurance consultant Peter Kenney.
"We had some indications that they (selectmen) weren't ready to vote," said Schoonmaker, a Sharon teacher who represented the Sharon Teachers Association and the instructional assistants during the negotiations.
"We had some indications they didn't feel they had all the information they needed."
A similar rally and informational picket is planned for Thursday, Schoonmaker said.
About 100 signs were printed for Tuesday night's session, and organizers ran out of them, he said.
A number of motorists tooted their horns while driving past the group.
"We've obviously made an impression on the community," Schoonmaker said right before the meeting.
"We've got a lot of people out there. People are highly visible. We've even got some chanting going on, which is very cool."
Selectmen voted to discuss the proposal privately right after Sharon firefighters union President Jim Davenport asked the board not to accept the Massachusetts Municipal Health Insurance Law enacted last July, and "go back to preserving collective bargaining rights" and recognize that the unions have "made concessions in the past."
"I truly believe that under the regular collective bargaining process, we can get something done," Davenport said.
Selectmen voted on Jan. 10 to begin the process of changing Sharon's health insurance benefits under that state health insurance law.
Monday, Schoonmaker said the deal awaiting the board of selectmen's approval is "a little better" than what town officials proposed on Feb. 15.
That plan was projected to reduce Sharon's health plan cost by $655,212 for the fiscal year starting July 1. The proposal would reduce employee and Medicare retirees' share of the rates by $174,143, according to an executive summary of the plan. Also, Sharon would mitigate the impacts by setting aside $163,803, not taking it in employee and retiree contributions for three weeks during the next fiscal year.
Under the new deal, Sharon has offered to put $200,000 per year into a health resource account that the workers and retirees "can draw against to pay out of pocket expenses over and above what they're currently paying," Schoonmaker said.
Tuesday night, before selectmen met, Davenport said that it was "very encouraging to see all the municipal workers coming together on something as important as health insurance."
"We look at it as class warfare and union busting tactics by the town denying us affordable health insurance," he said.