The city's decision to include an outside labour lawyer in the collective bargaining process has disappointed union leaders.
Contracts for the two Canadian Union of Public Employee locals 399 and 1048 expired Dec. 31 and negotiations are expected to begin before the end of the month.
However, a marked difference in the process this year is the inclusion of Adriana Wills, a partner with the Vancouver-based firm Harris & Co., who will serve as the chief spokesperson for the city at the table.
According to acting city manager and director of corporate services Kathleen Soltis, the city doesn't have a standing agreement with Wills, but have dealt with her for other labour challenges and issues that went to arbitration over the years.
Solitis said the city is hoping to get through the negotiations "effectively and efficiently" with Wills at the helm.
"We're thinking that this time around is going to be particularly complex because we have fiscal challenges that are over and above what we normally have," said Soltis. "[Wills] brings an extra degree of expertise to the table."
But considering there haven't been any discussions between the union and their employer and no proposals are on the table, union leaders don't understand why this round of bargaining is supposed to be any different than years past.
"I do know that the past history of Prince George, we've always managed to resolve and come through with fair collective agreements just working together across from each other," said local 1048 president Janet Bigelow. "We've not had one strike. We've resolved everything fine."
With all the concerns surrounding the city's financial state and the need to save money, the addition of the third-party negotiation didn't sit well with CUPE 399 president Gary Campbell.
"I am a bit disappointed with that. Especially with all the concerns about money... and then they bring in a very expensive labour law lawyer from the Lower Mainland to come in and bargain," he said. "It doesn't seem right to me. I also don't think it's necessary."
Soltis didn't know off hand how much the use of Wills in the process would cost, but said it's based on an hourly rate with a daily cap with her fee coming out of the administrative budget.
"It will depend how much time we spend at the negotiating table," she said. "She is pretty efficient, so we're hoping that we will be able to do things reasonably quickly and that the costs won't add up too much."
Campbell said he is optimistic about what lies ahead and that he will "bargain in good faith and try and come up with something that's good for everybody." The unions and the city should be meeting by the end of next week to lay the ground rules for this year's negotiations.