Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis and city employee union officials met this week to lay the groundwork for the coming collective bargaining season - a season marked a year ago by bitterness, blue flu and boycotts.

Charlie Quick, head of the International Firefighters Association local 1645 and Ed Mayne, president of the Utah AFL-CIO, met with DePaulis to discuss communication issues that were problematic last year, DePaulis said.After DePaulis froze merit pay increase for city employees last year, the firefighter's union was visibly angered with their contract and boycotted the city's Employee Appreciation Day in August.

Police officers protested their contract, which along with other city union contracts did not include pay increases, by coming down with the "blue flu," for a day - resulting in nearly 100 percent absenteeism among patrol officers.

Both parties called this week's talks a good start to the collective bargaining process, which will begin this June. DePaulis, however, was more circumspect about his office's relationship with the fire union.

"I think that our relationship is very testy; one that is going to be very difficult," he said. "The merit freeze created a lot of pent-up demands and also a lot of pent-up frustrations," he said.

Mayne called the meeting amicable and said both sides are optimistic about making progress.

Mayne said the city's negotiating tactics last year were "not professional" because the city failed to establish who had the authority to negotiate. "Their (negotiating) consultant was very good, but you never knew what the authority was," Mayne said.

"I don't think it was anything more than a miscommunication issue," DePaulis said, adding that occasionally contract issues were proposed by the city that had not actually been approved by him.

For example, the city's negotiator, a private consultant, took a tentative proposal regarding merit pay to the bargaining table that DePaulis had not approved and it had to be withdrawn, the mayor said.

DePaulis said the city would work hard to develop effective communication so that lines of authority would be clear. "I consider myself to be the ultimate authority," he said.

"Our job will be to lay out a process to smooth over those rough edges . . . . I would like to see it be a win-win situation," he said. "I realize it won't be easy, in fact, it may be very difficult, but that doesn't mean that it can't be done," he added.