Wauwatosa — The Wauwatosa Common Council reversed itself late Tuesday and approved three public employee labor contracts aldermen had rejected a month before.
The decision came in the context of a supercharged political environment in the hometown of Gov. Scott Walker, with some of the dozens of speakers from the city urging officials to reject the contracts until Walker's budget-repair bill goes into effect, and others echoing union demonstrators' support of bargaining rights.
Aldermen were still speaking about the decision as of 11 p.m., but when the vote was taken at 11:10, the result was 8-7 in favor of the contracts.
Ald. Dennis McBride, one of five who sought the special meeting to discuss the contracts, referred to Wauwatosa as a "deeply divided city."
Ald. Cheryl Berdan, who works in Walker's Milwaukee office, urged that the contracts be rejected, pointing out that the city voted in favor of Justice David Prosser in the recent Supreme Court election - one that many viewed as a referendum on Walker's budget plans.
City Administrator James Archambo, responding to questions from aldermen, said the contracts constituted "a vastly subtler issue and a vastly closer call" than the partisan debates over it suggested.
Aldermen who favored the three contracts - which would cover city public works employees, clerical staff and dispatchers - argued they'd save the city money.
Their speeches came after spirited testimony from members of the public on both sides of the issue.
The parking lot was jammed and the crowd spilled out into the hallways at City Hall and a separate room with closed-circuit TVs.
And though people opposed to the contracts attended in force - some holding signs complaining about union "bullying" - so did supporters of the contracts wearing pink stickers proclaiming "I support fair contracts."
Both supporters and opponents lined up to speak at the special meeting held to reopen the discussion of the labor contracts.
City resident Mary Braunreiter, who favored the contracts, said not to approve them would be "wasting tax dollars" because of savings to the city included in the proposed collective bargaining agreements.
Greg Fritsch, speaking for the opposition, told aldermen there was "no reason, none, zero" to ratify the contracts and flip-flop on their earlier vote. "Have some stones," he told them.
Gov. Scott Walker has proposed ending most collective bargaining for public employee unions, but the Walker measure would not affect existing contracts. The law setting up those measures is being challenged in court.
On March 15, the council was scheduled to approve a series of labor contracts with local unions. But more than 100 people showed up at City Hall, nearly all of them to oppose the contracts, and the council ended up rejecting the pacts.
Aldermen Donald Birschel and Linda Nikcevich, along with three other aldermen, requested Tuesday's special meeting, saying they were seeking another vote on the contracts because the concessions in the agreements would save the city more money than Walker's measures.
Birschel said the city stands to save about $1.07 million a year under the contracts.
The law, which Walker championed, requires most public employees to pay half the cost of their pensions - typically 5.8% of pay - and 12.6% of health care costs. None of those changes applies to police officers, firefighters, sheriff's deputies or state troopers.
Wauwatosa employees don't participate in the state's health care plan, so that portion of the Walker measures would not apply to them.
But under the proposed contracts, Wauwatosa employees would pay between 10% and 20% of health care costs, Birschel and Nikcevich said.
Retired employees also would pay 5%. Walker's measures don't cover retired workers, Birschel said.
And under the proposed contracts, employees covered under those pacts would start making pension contributions immediately, she said.
The city could have been saving at least $12,000 to $20,000 a week had those contracts been approved last month, Nikcevich said Monday.
Wauwatosa resident Stanley L. Zurawski filed a complaint Monday that the meeting violated state open meetings law, but both aldermen said the law was not violated when they called for the special meeting.
The city has a provision that allows aldermen to file a petition calling for a special session. That's what they did, Nikcevich said.