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Chattanooga police and firefighters are fighting what they say are behind-the-scenes efforts by Mayor Andy Berke to get their unions to sign a prewritten letter criticizing their pension fund board.
The Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Board criticized Berke last week, saying he was manufacturing a crisis with the police and firefighters retirement fund. Later, several unions got an email from the mayor’s office asking them to a sign an already written letter supporting the mayor and criticizing the pension board.
“Firstly, we would like to offer congratulations on presenting your first budget on Wednesday. Clearly, you understand the critical role that public safety plays in our community,” the letter begins. “We believe it would be irresponsible for the city to decrease its contribution to the [pension] fund and are disappointed by the actions of the Pension Board.”
The letter was referring to the pension board’s position that Berke’s budget is $1.1 million off on the city’s projected contribution to the pension fund next year.
After the letter was sent out by Berke’s senior adviser Stacy Richardson, one union leader said he got a call from the mayor’s staff saying the letter should be signed and sent back within 30 minutes.
“Everybody was completely surprised by the letter,” said Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association President Jack Thompson. “It’s definitely a concern that they’re going to ask us to sign something of that nature.”
A group of firefighters, police officers and residents responded by creating a Facebook page criticizing the letter and the mayor.
“Your blatant attempt to intimidate the labor unions is absurd,” the group wrote in an open letter to Berke and the City Council. “Whether it was your intent or not, trying to get them to sign a document with nearly no notice sounds like intimidation.”
Chief of Staff Travis McDonough said the letters were sent to the Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association and the Chattanooga Fraternal Order of Police to encourage the pension board to be collaborative.
The idea of writing a letter was discussed with the union leaders, McDonough said. But he wouldn’t say whether the leaders were told the letter was already written and that it criticized the pension board.
On July 22, Berke announced he was hiring an outside company to study the city’s pension, which he said is $125 million short of full funding. Pension board members asked for two seats on the mayor’s task force but were told they would get only one.
On Wednesday, McDonough said Berke met with the pension board members to address the recent criticism, but he wouldn’t discuss what was said at the meeting.
Berke’s spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said the mayor’s office ultimately decided not to go forward with the letter.
But Thompson told a different story.
He said last week after he received the letter and got the call to immediately send it back signed, he decided to ignore the letter.
“The time frame is what struck me as odd,” he said. “If you’re asking me to support something and then give me a time, that seems rushed. I didn’t even have enough time to get it to my board to look at it.”
<em>Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659. </em>