Howard City hires attorney to look into DPW’s union effort

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 11:57 am on Thursday, April 20, 2017

Howard City Village Councilwoman Cheryl Smith, at left, voices concerns about the village’s Department of Public Works while Councilwoman Eleanor Marek listens. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

HOWARD CITY — Village officials have hired an attorney to investigate the Howard City Department of Public Works’ effort to unionize.

DPW employees have been in the process of unionizing since March with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). DPW employee Joe Cornelisse, who has been named union steward, said the DPW has since gained some protection under AFSCME’s umbrella, but they cannot begin bargaining until an official vote takes place. That process has now been delayed since Village Manager-President Randy Heckman hired attorney Grant Pecor of Clark Hill in Grand Rapids to look into the unionizing effort. Heckman said he made the decision himself after talking to council members.

“It’s in the best interest of the village to look at all the options that are involved with this when you’re dealing with wages, insurance and everything that goes with running a business,” Heckman told The Daily News. “We don’t want to make any bad decisions that will affect the village long term. Once a union forms, it’s for a long period of time and this affects everybody, from the top person in the village to every resident as well.”

Heckman told DPW Director Mike Van Wagner to instruct DPW employee Bill Cornelisse — Joe Cornelisse’s father — that he was not to have anything to do with the union effort — the reason being, according to Heckman, that Cornelisse is the DPW’s assistant director.

During the public comment portion of Monday’s Village Council meeting, Van Wagner said he and Cornelisse reviewed council meeting minutes dating back to 2010, but they couldn’t find anything that said Cornelisse was named assistant director or given a pay increase for the job title or is able to discipline, hire or fire employees in Van Wagner’s absence.

“He was never offered the position of assistant director and he was never told by the council or the village manager that he was the assistant director,” Van Wagner said. “His job description is the same as all the other employees. If he and I were both absent, Joe Cornelisse would be the next in line in seniority, does this mean he would be the assistant director?

“I guess as a taxpayer I’m wondering how far you’re willing to go and how much you’re willing to spend and what would be the purpose?” Van Wagner asked.

Heckman and council members did not respond to Van Wagner as he was speaking during public comment.

Also on Monday’s meeting agenda was an updated organizational chart for 2017-2018.

“If Bill is saying he’s not the assistant director, do we need to take him off?” Councilwoman Cheryl Smith asked.

“At this point, I don’t think it matters,” Heckman replied. “It was adopted when Mike Scott was president, not me. It doesn’t matter, it will get worked out.”

The Village Council unanimously approved the chart.

Bill Cornelisse told The Daily News that Heckman telling him to stay out of the process will not deter the effort.

“We’re still pursuing it,” Cornelisse said. “Obviously with the village choosing to challenge my  participation in it, that slows it down a bit, but it’s a process that will continue to proceed and I’m sure it will come to fruition because there’s 100 percent participation in it. There’s nothing the village can do to stop it. The facts will speak for themselves.”

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