August 02, 2012WOLFEBORO — On July 20 the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Professional Firefighters of Wolfeboro, IAFF Local 3708 et al. vs. Town of Wolfeboro, finding in favor of the town.
The suit dates back to August 2010 when the Board of Selectmen, acting on the advice of Town Counsel Mark Puffer, withdrew its recognition of the union representing nine Wolfeboro firefighters – International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO Local 3708, organized at Professional Firefighters of Wolfeboro – and came up with a new compensation plan for firefighters as town employees, effective Oct. 1, 2010. The firefighters asked for and won a temporary restraining order from Carroll County Superior Court Judge Steven Houran; however, following a subsequent hearing early in 2011, the injunction was removed. The firefighters then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Arguments were heard on March 8, 2012 and the court decision was released on July 20.
The legal dispute was based on interpretations of the 2002 warrant article that authorized Wolfeboro selectmen to recognize a collective bargaining unit composed of six firefighters and three officer positions. Following the vote, the town did recognize the union and entered into two successive contracts, the second of which expired in 2006. That contract was extended by agreement for one year and, under the terms of a "duration clause," it remained in effect for 2008 and 2009 while the parties unsuccessfully negotiated a new agreement. In July 2010 negotiations broke down when the parties were unable to agree on health insurance terms: the town had come up with a new plan that the other two union had accepted but the firefighters did not like. It was at that point that Town Counsel Puffer advised selectmen that the 2002 warrant article was defective in that it did not comply with a state law that required bargaining units to consist of 10 or more positions. The firefighters' unit only had nine.
The Supreme Court decision reviews the history and then addresses the points of law at issue. The firefighters argued that the more general law approved by voters RSA 31:3 applied in this case while the town argued that RSA 273-A:8, which was enacted later, required that the Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) certify a bargaining unit when petitioned to do so and barred the PELRB from certifying a unit of less than 10 employees, was the governing law. The court wrote, "We generally assume that when the legislature enacts a provision, it has in mind previously enacted statutes relating to the same subject matter…When a conflict exists between two statutes, however, the later statute will control." The court thus sided with the town in not recognizing a bargaining unit that was not certified by PELRB.
The firefighters also argued that selectmen should have known about the RSA 273-A issue before the summer of 2010 and if was unfair to bring it up after such a long period. They also argued that the Board of Selectmen "misrepresented its ability to certify them as a bargaining unit or concealed its inability to do so." Based on the evidence presented, the court found no basis for these claims.
A copy of the full decision can be found at http://www.courts.state.nh.us/supreme/opinions/2012/2012075firefighterswolfeboro.pdf