A dentist was nowhere to be seen, but some observers at the Mercer County commissioners meeting Thursday might argue it sure felt like pulling teeth when it came to passage of a 45-cents-an-hour pay hike for four clerks in the election office.

After a nearly 30-minute discussion, the county salary board — commissioners Olivia M. Lazor, Michele Brooks and Brian Beader and Controller Tom Amundsen — unanimously agreed to the raise that had failed to gain approval at three previous meetings.

Ms. Lazor and Amundsen, who essentially killed the increase by abstaining two weeks ago, both voted yes this time. Mrs. Brooks and Beader had previously agreed to the hike.

Ms. Lazor said she changed her vote because it appears, as was argued by United Steelworkers of America Local 1355-04 all along, the mediation that led to the agreement was binding. Two weeks ago, she promised to change her vote if there was proof the mediation was binding. A copy of a letter obtained by The Herald, as well as some legal advice from a county solicitor, apparently provided her that proof.

The letter, dated Dec. 2, 2005, was signed by Bill Boyle, the county’s director of administrative services, and Linda Breeden, a staff representative for the USW based in North Versailles, Pa. It reads, in part: “The County of Mercer and USW Local 1355-04 has agreed to binding mediation on the following cases.” Included in a list of three cases was “Registration/Election grievance.”

Ms. Lazor initially questioned whether Boyle had the authority to sign the letter. Beader countered that Boyle was the board’s agent and he definitely stood behind any action taken by Boyle on behalf of the county.

Amundsen agreed, adding that Boyle is the person who negotiates contracts for the county and “has the implied authority to do this on behalf of the county.”

“No matter where it goes, Bill Boyle had the authority,” Amundsen said. “And if he did not have the authority, that’s an issue the commissioners need to take up with Bill Boyle. But we have an agreement signed by him.”

Beader said the board in April unanimously accepted the scoring procedure that was used to determine the rate change and agreed to move forward with the process as long as both parties were willing to abide by the mediator’s recommendation. That acceptance was reflected in writing in letters dated April 5 and 19.

During a late April meeting, however, a motion addressing the hike died after failing to get a second. Two weeks later, the board tabled the issue because Ms. Lazor was absent. In late May, it finally got to a vote, but died after not gaining majority approval when Ms. Lazor and Amundsen abstained.

Amundsen unexpectedly brought the issue, which wasn’t on the agenda, to the table again Thursday by reintroducing the original motion calling for the raise through a reclassification of the job and making it retroactive to Oct. 1.

“I think this issue has gone on too long,” Amundsen said. “For the sake of the employees, it needs to be brought to a discussion and it needs to come to a vote and it needs passed.”

Amundsen said he abstained two weeks ago because he wasn’t part of the process from the beginning. He only became aware of it as a salary board member when it was ready to come to a vote the first time in April. He insisted he shouldn’t be the deciding vote because it was the commissioners who had agreed to abide by the mediator’s decision and they should be the ones to approve or disapprove the hike.

Although Ms. Lazor said some parties want to blow the incident out of proportion, her “responsibility is to make sure the actions I take do not have a ripple effect or a long-term consequence.”

She maintained the hike could eventually affect about 90 county employees and cost the county up to $80,000. Beader disagreed, saying his calculations show it would cost closer to $3,200. He said the salary board ultimately has control over any ripple effect, that any future issues can be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

Despite the motion’s success, Karen Seelbaugh told commissioners she believed the union was treated unfairly. The grievance was originally filed by the clerks in August and Mrs. Seelbaugh, the union’s chief grievance officer, argued it should have been settled in January.

“Hopefully this won’t be a precedent-setting situation because matters should be resolved a lot more quickly than this,” she added.

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