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Nothing wrong with listening to firefighters' case

The Boston City Council came under some boisterous criticism last week when Council President Maureen Feeney arranged for Boston firefighters to meet with members in an open session in the City Council chambers.

Currently, the firefighters union is engaged in bitter negotiations with the city administration over a new contract. Last week's public meeting, coming just as the negotiators were about to enter arbitration, was seen in some quarters as a tacit endorsement by the council of the union's position.

Local 718 has struggled in the court of public opinion as media reports have made it appear the union is reluctant to yield to pressure to have random drug and alcohol testing of its members. But the union leaders deny that portrayal, and Local 718 has hired a New York-based public relations agency to devise ways to counter the adverse publicity that has put the union on the defensive in the contract talks.

As part of that strategy, the union asked the council to host a "public meeting" to enable its leaders to present its positions to council members and to the public at large. Such meetings are quite commonplace, say City Hall insiders, and have been routinely offered to other groups as a way for councillors to hear directly from constituent groups on matters of public policy. And the public meeting is distinctly different, they say, from a public hearing, at which all comers are allowed to express their views.

As it happened, not all the councillors showed up for the meeting, but for those who did attend, it was a way to extend a courtesy to a constituent group whose members are universally admired for their courage, determination, and life-saving acts of heroism.

The union asked for the opportunity, space, and time to correct some information with the City Council that they believe mischaracterized them in the media. Feeney and her colleagues were right to extend them such a courtesy. In doing so, the council is not taking sides, but giving its members a chance to listen. This was not a hearing since the council is prohibited by the city charter from being a part of any collective bargaining process.  While this was a publicly noticed meeting, there was no public comment period.  No one other than councillors and firefighters were allowed to comment unless they were granted permission by the council.In fairness, the council offered to convene a similar session for the administration to share any information they felt appropriate. But during last week's meeting, it would have been inappropriate for the lead city negotiator to make a presentation. In the council's view, the meeting was designed to be a listening session for councillors and not a contentious public hearing.

The criticism of Feeney and the council is, in our view, unwarranted. The firefighters' union deserves the same courtesy that any other municipal organization or union would get under similar circumstances.