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Union: SMART needs more safety officers

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Months before the back-to-back SMART train deaths happened this week in Rohnert Park, employees and labor union leaders first raised concerns in March about growing safety issues along the track and their inability to prevent future accidents.

Their worries centered on one basic point — the lack of safety officers monitoring the tracks for violations that could lead to injury or death of a pedestrian or cyclist, said Felix Huerta, union representative for Operating Engineers Local Union 3, which represents local employees and is in contract negotiations with SMART.

One code compliance officer for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit trains is tasked with helping to observe 43 miles of tracks and around 60 public track crossings.

Jennifer McGill, SMART chief of police, said more officers would not have prevented the deaths of Jimmie Joy Qualls, 30, on Thursday and the bicyclist on Friday at the intersection of Golf Course Drive.

“Even if we had 10 code enforcement officers it would not have prevented those deaths,” McGill said. “We have great partnerships with law enforcement and we are constantly evaluating how we can be better.”

SMART engineers, however, believe that more officers would make the commuter rail system safer. After repeated proposals for more officers went ignored during contract negotiation meetings, Huerta and other representatives were told to meet with McGill during a regularly scheduled safety meeting on June 11 to readdress their concerns, he said.

“We brought up the need for more code compliance officers in March, when there had only been four deaths,” Huerta said. “So then we took them to McGill, who said she would look at our concerns, evaluate them and get back to us, but we still have not gotten a firm response.”

McGill confirmed there was a safety committee meeting on June 11 and that she was present, but said she could not discuss ongoing labor negotiations.

The union has been negotiating a three-year contract since April, which would take effect next year. Huerta’s team represents 29 SMART employees, engineers and conductors who operate the front and back ends of the trains.

Wages, grievance procedures and safety are the main points being discussed by negotiators, said Huerta, who attends each meeting. SMART hires outside representation that is present during bargaining sessions.

“We asked that going forward a code compliance officer be available at all times any time a train is in service,” Huerta said. “Incidents happen quite frequently and sometimes we don’t have anyone to call.”

The 2019-2020 budget for SMART, presented earlier this month, includes funding for up to two full-time and one part-time code compliance officers. But McGill said currently there is only one employee in that role.

Daily responsibilities include working with SMART dispatchers to alert local law enforcement about trespassers and ensuring the safety of all passengers on platforms and parking lots, as stated in the SMART job description listed online. Oftentimes the officer is asked to travel from one area of the track to another during an almost seven-hour shift, five days per week.

There have been 11 bargaining sessions since April and each time Huerta has presented the need for more code officers to monitor the tracks.

“Day after day we talk about it and they reject it each time,” Huerta said. “Imagine if two kids were killed on that same corner — there would have been a crossing guard that next day. Safety is everyone’s responsibility.”

There was a scheduled bargaining meeting on Thursday, but Huerta said due to the death of Qualls it was rescheduled to early July.

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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