The Hays City Commission on Tuesday moved to table a decision on whether to opt out of the Public Employer-Employee Relations Act, which effectively would end the city’s negotiations with three local labor unions.

The commission voted 4-1 to table the issue until a Dec. 7 work session. The dissenting vote was cast by commissioner Lance Jones, who had requested the city discuss the issue and said he is in favor of ending the city’s involvement in PEERA.

City commission chambers were crowded for Tuesday’s session, with dozens of employees and union representatives present. Leaders with the city’s service, police and firefighters labor unions urged the commission to continue the long-held practice of labor negotiations.

While PEERA is optional for local governments, the city has “opted in” since 1972 — and is one of only 12 cities that currently does so.

Brandon Woods, a full-time firefighter with the city and president of the Local 2119 chapter of International Association of Firefighters, urged commissioners to preserve union negotiations as a way to give employees “a voice.”

“The most important reason for electing coverage under the provisions of the Public Employer-Employee Relations Act is that it simply leads to a more productive and cooperative relationship between the governing body and its employees,” Woods said in a prepared statement. “Kansas state law gives public employees the right to join and participate in labor organizations.”

While this right would not be taken away if the city chooses to end its involvement in PEERA, city officials no longer would negotiate with unions each year as part of the budget process. Ultimately, the city commission has authority to establish employee contract provisions.

“Several city and county governments have elected coverage under PEERA. These entities and the labor organizations that represent the employees have enjoyed good relationships,” Woods continued. “There have been no strikes or interruptions of service to the public. Employee grievances have been resolved in a fair manner. Public employees in these jurisdictions know that they have a method for resolution of disputes, and they know that the city has recognized and respected their right to choose a representative.”

Phillip Gage of the Hays Police Department, who is president of the local Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 48, also urged the commission to continue negotiations.

“We would really like for us to stay under PEERA so we still have that communication between the employees’ elected representative to come speak on their behalf ... for wages and other benefits so we can still have that conversation through negotiations,” Gage said. “We’ve been doing it for over 40 years; I think it should still continue.”

While discussing the issue last week, Jones said cost was a concern for him. The city spends an average of $20,000 per year on labor negotiations, and those costs increase if city officials and employee unions reach an impasse. He also noted the city has appointed a staff wage and benefit committee to advocate for all employees, and expressed concern with the fact unions represent only certain departments.

Esau Freeman, business representative of local Service Employees International Union Local 513, said the unions strive to represent as many employees as possible.

“I think it’s very important for the employees. And while I will agree with you that I think it was a great idea to form the wage and (benefit) committee, my concerns there are that the union is an organization that has elected officials based on what the employees themselves choose,” Freeman said. “While we do have dues people pay, our union has always been very open to take input from anyone — member or non-member — as long as they’re in the bargaining unit. I just want to be very clear that we are not here to negotiate for a selective group of people.”

Commissioners thanked the employees and union representatives for their feedback, noting they also have taken phone calls and received emails. Mayor Shaun Musil said he is not opposed to the city continuing labor negotiations, and noted a comment he made at last week’s work session was taken in the wrong context.

“I support what you guys do as a union,” Musil said. “I don’t 100-percent think it’s a must to have the unions, but I don’t have a problem with what we do. Since I’ve been a commissioner since 2013, we’ve had some back and forth with negotiations, but I think it’s all been pretty civil.”

Musil noted the city strives to take care of its employees, including asking departments to trim spending in order to give employee raises in 2018. He said the discussion of ending labor union negotiations comes as a “sucker punch” to city employees.

“To me, this in my opinion, is a sucker punch to you guys. We turn around and say hey, we did this for you, and then we start talking about this,” Musil said. “I’m glad we tabled it. … I just think we can spend sometimes many hours talking about little things, and to spend 15 to 20 minutes to decide something that’s very historic to the city of Hays I think would be a huge mistake.”