Court hears arguments on firefighters' dispute with the town
Question is whether town denying union recognition was legal
October 21, 2010
OSSIPEE — Wolfeboro's firefighters, represented by John Krupski of the Professional Firefighters of Wolfeboro IAFF Local 3708, had their day in court on Oct. 14 before Justice Steven M. Houran in Carroll County Superior Court in Ossipee. At issue was the town of Wolfeboro's decision on Aug. 4 to rescind recognition of the firefighters union, which, in turn, put an end to negotiations over the renewal of the contract for nine affected members of the Fire-Rescue department.
Krupski, who won a temporary restraining order on Sept. 27 to block the town from unilaterally setting payment and benefits to go into effect on Oct. 1, argued to the court that the town acted in bad faith when it cancelled a negotiation scheduled for July 23.
"When we met on July 15, we established ground rules and agreed that if we came to an impasse, we would go to mediation," said Krupskki in an interview. He also said that they were not notified in advance of the town's decision, announced at the Aug. 4 selectman's meeting, to declare the contract illegal. "That's not a very nice thing to do to people," he declared.
In court, he pointed out that the voters recognized the firefighters' rights to negotiate with the town as early as 2002 when they passed a warrant article approved by town counsel and the Department of Revenue Administration and that they have maintained that right for eight years. In his opinion, the town's "precipitous action" not to recognize the union "causes irreparable harm" and he requested attorney fees and costs for "having to address the matter."
Speaking on behalf of the town, Attorney Dan Schwarz said that everyone makes mistakes. In this case the town's labor lawyer, Attorney Thomas Flygare, acting on the town's behest, took a close look at the inconsistency between the original warrant article and the more stringent 1975 Public Employer Labor Relations Act. He found that the number of firefighters did not meet the minimum requirement of 10 in order to negotiate, therefore the contract was illegal and unenforceable. "It doesn't make a difference if the town agreed," said Schwarz.
The contract with the firefighters has remained the same since 2007, and negotiations in 2008, 2009 and 2010 have remained stalled over health insurance compensation. Schwarz argued that as of July 2010 there have been no significant concessions and suggested that with 100 percent compensation and a benefit level above that of other town employees, there was no incentive for firefighters "to move off the status quo."
He told Justice Houran that if the town is "guilty of anything," it is that of giving the firemen a raise, for the town compensation changes set to go into effect on Oct. 1, until stopped by the injunction, provided wage increases, something the firemen have eschewed in favor of holding on to their health insurance package.
Schwarz noted also that current firemen who opt out of the insurance benefit may receive $9,000 in compensation as a "buy out"; new employees would only receive $2,500, like other town employees.
Speaking for Flygare, Schwarz said that once the selectmen agreed in nonpublic session to declare the contract null and void, he was not in a position to continue contact with the union.
In conclusion, he expressed "chagrin that we didn't do so earlier (in reference to the recent finding and subsequent action)," but argued that there is no basis for the argument, no money should be given for attorney's fees and that furthermore, the firemen "acted in bad faith. The firemen had unfettered discretion and were intransigent."
Justice Houran said he would expect Krupski's rebuttal by Oct. 22 and a subsequent response soon thereafter from Schwarz to keep the matter moving to conclusion. Once he has received both responses, he will render his decision.