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Sanitation Two supporters urge review of Chapel Hill firings

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Calling their firings unjust and their public appeals hearings flawed, supporters of Chapel Hill's Sanitation Two lined the back walls of Monday's Town Council meeting and urged council members to fire Town Manager Roger Stancil.

Clyde Clark and Kerry Bigelow, who worked as trash collectors for Chapel Hill's public works department, were fired in October and charged with insubordination and intimidating residents after questioning why they had to pick up trash in residents' yards.

Sanitation Two supporters say the town firings were an attempt to deter union activity and to stifle the claims of racism and unsafe working conditions Clark and Bigelow had filed. Each man is a member of UE Local 150.

During the tense meeting, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt ejected two of the workers' allies from the chambers for mocking him with laughter, saying he would not allow discourse that isn't civil and accepting of differing views. Council members rejected the push to fire Stancil and the idea that he conspired to ax the employees, but they agreed the appeals process needs to be reviewed.

The Town Council voted 5-3—with Pease, Councilwoman Penny Rich and Councilman Matt Czajkowski opposed—to review the appeals process and its implementation in this case. They did not set a date for the discussion.

"We have just picked up our sword and shield, and we are getting ready now to challenge them much more directly than we have before," said Al McSurely, the lawyer representing Clark and Bigelow.

Stancil announced last week that the firings would not be overturned after separate hearings by the town's Personnel Appeals Committee both recommended he deny the men's attempts to regain their jobs and found that the town acted appropriately. The vote was 3-2 in Bigelow's hearing and 5-1 for Clark's.

But McSurely is promising a legal battle and said he will continue to seek the men's reinstatement, back pay and an apology. He also wants to use the case to legally challenge N.C. General Statute 95-98, which prevents contracts between unions and governmental entities, effectively nixing collective bargaining.

Underscoring his intent, at Monday's meeting McSurely hand-delivered a massive public-records request to the town seeking any information gathered by the town on Clark and Bigelow, including e-mails, deleted drafts of e-mails and reports.

"We are moving forward, never turning back," the Raging Grannies, a group of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom members who carol for progressive causes, harmonized Monday night as they led a group of two dozen social justice advocates into the council chambers.

Clark and Bigelow, both dressed in red as a form of protest, sat next to McSurely on the third row but did not speak.

Kleinschmidt reminded the demonstrators, "This is a place where the council does the business of this community, and we will not be disrupted."

Minutes later, he ejected one supporter who laughed at his blue "civility" pin given to him by the mayor of Tucson, Ariz. Another was ordered to leave toward the end of the discussion after mocking Kleinschmidt's statement that future discussion on the Sanitation Two likely would occur in closed session, at least in part.

But the majority of the supporters heeded the mayor's call for decorum and made the case that the hearings were unfair because the men were not allowed to face their accusers. Instead, the people who had made allegations against the workers read prepared statements via speakerphone and did not have to answer questions from McSurely. Supporters also say the town should not have hired Capital Associated Industries, a nonprofit Raleigh-based human resources firm, to investigate because of the group's anti-union stance.

Council members expressed confidence in Stancil and said they saw no orchestrated plan to fire Clark and Bigelow because of their union ties, as some supporters suggested.

But the Sanitation Two supporters found sympathetic ears from Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward.

"I want us to find time to talk about this," said Ward, who attended the hearings and was "troubled" by what he witnessed. "I think the outcome was wrong. I think the system worked poorly."

On the other side, Councilman Gene Pease said he was willing to talk about the appeals process, but not Clark or Bigelow's cases.

"When you look at the personnel files, which we are allowed to do legally, this case should never have gotten this far, and these people should not have worked that long in this community, as far as I'm concerned," he said.

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