Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Firefighters’ suit goes to judge

Both parties wait for ruling

Express Staff Writer

     Who determines when an impasse has been reached? A two-day trial that concluded Friday between the city of Ketchum and its firefighters’ union has put a dispute over employment contract negotiations in the hands of a judge.

     Parties have until Oct. 21 to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to 5th District Judge John Butler. They will then have another week to respond to each other’s written comments. Judge Butler will review all arguments made during the trial and the submitted material before issuing a ruling.

     Attorneys for the firefighters union filed the lawsuit last April in BlaineCounty 5th District Court against the city after contract negotiations failed to yield results, and, according to the union, the city refused to return to the bargaining table.

     According to the complaint, violations occurred when the city made changes to terms and conditions of employment without union input while the parties were engaged in collective bargaining; when it refused to engage in collective bargaining as required by state law; and when it refused to execute an agreement reached between the parties.

     “The city continues to insist the parties are at an impasse,” James Piotrowski, attorney for the firefighters, said Monday. “We’re going to bear out our point the parties are not at an impasse.”

     Besides hoping to get the city back into negotiations, the union has taken issue with some contract provisions, including at-will status of city employees.

     In September 2010, the Ketchum City Council adopted a new employee handbook, which included, among other things, a provision that all employees were employed “at will.” The previous version stated employees could be terminated only for cause.

     “They never made a contract proposal indicating that (change),” Piotrowski said. “If that’s an issue so important to the city, they should have made a (written) proposal. The city never presented to us what their final position was.”

     Parties agreed on most issues during negotiations two years ago, but they did not agree on several provisions. Per state law, the matter was turned over to a neutral fact-finding commission.

     The panel made recommendations and suggested the parties adopt a contract based on those and other, previously agreed upon items.

     The union accepted that nonbinding recommendation, according to the complaint, but the city did not.

     “Despite a further request to engage in collective bargaining, the city of Ketchum has refused to meet and confer with Local 4758,” the complaint states.

     During the trial, Piotrowski asked Senior Lt. John Rathfon with the Ketchum Fire Department whether the union’s bargaining team felt further negotiations were futile.

     “No,” Rathfon said. “We’re still open to it today.”

     Attorney Paul Fitzer, with Boise-based Moore Smith Buxton & Turcke, argued the city’s case in court. He did not return a call seeking comment by press deadline Tuesday.

     City Administrator Gary Marks has previously stated that the city has fulfilled its legal obligations.

     Piotrowski said it will be up to the judge to determine whether a genuine impasse has been reached.

     “We look forward to finishing the process,” he said. “It’s been a long road for the firefighters.”

Rebecca Meany:

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