Ogdensburg to waive tax-exempt renewals

Ogdensburg City Hall at 330 Ford St. adorned with snow. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

ALBANY — The state Appellate Division in Albany has reversed a lower court’s ruling that denied the union representing Ogdensburg’s firefighters the opportunity to arbitrate alleged violations of the minimum staffing requirements in its six-year contract with the city.

In a unanimous decision released Thursday, the appellate court found that the city and the union “plainly agreed” to arbitrate matters such as minimum staffing when they reached a collective bargaining agreement that went into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

On Nov. 17, the Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters Local 1799 had appealed a March 19 ruling by state Supreme Court Judge Mary M. Farley that had granted the city of Ogdensburg a permanent stay of arbitration after the union filed grievances over alleged violations in its collective bargaining agreement, which states the department cannot go below 24 firefighters. As of now, the fire department has 18 on its staff, including a fire chief. The department has gone to three-person shifts, a move that has sparked recent controversy.

“Although the provisions at issue here do not expressly mention safety as a reason for the minimum staffing requirements, the safety considerations are self-evident from the nature of the work to be performed — the quintessentially dangerous task of addressing conflagrations that, from time to time, beset the community,” the judges said in their ruling. “It goes without saying that, in such situations, having adequate personnel on hand would be essential to ensure firefighter safety as well as success in fighting the fires.”

Local 1799 President Jason T. Bouchard said he is pleased with the decision, and that it backs the union’s assertion that minimum staffing is a safety issue for its members and the citizens of Ogdensburg.

“This has always been a safety issue in our opinion. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous job and requires properly staffed manpower to safely and effectively do our jobs and keep the citizens and our members safe,” Mr. Bouchard said. “We are hopeful the city will respect and honor the ruling from the Appellate Division that will allow us to move to arbitration as we were guaranteed by our collective bargaining unit.”

City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie said that the city has 10 days to decide whether to ask for an appeal to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. He said that a recommendation would be brought to the City Council within the next 10 days. Mr. Jellie said that he’s not afraid of going to arbitration.

“To be quite honest, the thing about arbitration that I like is, quite frankly, we won’t be limited as we are in court that only wants to hear select portions of the law,” Mr. Jellie said. “During arbitration, we will lay out our entire case. We think this whole thing was bunk. Everybody will get to be heard, from when the firefighter contract was at an impasse to the day that it was passed, to immediately following the election, to present day. We will get to throw everything in there and then an arbitrator will decide.”

The city manager said that the union began the grievance process with seven issues and they “surrendered five” and followed through with two. Even if the city wins only one, he said it would be a victory.

“If this ends up with the only thing I get ordered out of this is the minimum number of daily staffing, but I have control of the numbers and types of positions I staff in the organization, from my perspective I won more than anybody ever said I was going to win,” Mr. Jellie said. “If at the end of the day, when it comes to the final two and I lose one and win one, in a heavily Taylor Act-fortified state with the city having no ability to technically lobby this matter in way, shape or form, to not having anywhere near the resources the International Association of Firefighters does, if I lose one of seven issues, of course it’s a victory.”

The ruling states that the CBA provides for grievance and arbitration procedures and contains certain minimum staffing regimens including that there are to be four shifts of bargaining unit employees, with each shift having an officer structure of one assistant chief, one captain, and the remaining shift members firefighters.

Article 18 of the CBA states that a minimum five bargaining unit employees — four firefighters and one officer, or three firefighters and two officers — are to be on duty at all times “unless otherwise mutually agreed to in writing for the period of this contract.”

No written agreement to alter the staffing rules was ever reached, according to the appellate ruling.

“In December 2020, petitioner’s acting fire chief, unilaterally, informed respondent of its intention, beginning in 2021, to operate its fire department with less than five on-duty members, possibly as few as three firefighters, on each shift,” the ruling reads. “Respondent initiated a grievance pursuant to the grievance procedure set forth in Article 22 of the CBA alleging that petitioner violated the entire CBA.”

The grievance was denied and the union filed a demand for arbitration. The city then filed in state Supreme Court for a stay of arbitration that was granted by Judge Farley.

“Supreme Court granted petitioner’s application, finding that the grievance concerned a job security clause that is nonarbitrable as against public policy. Respondent appeals, and we reverse,” the appellate ruling states.

Local 1799 was represented by Nathaniel G. Lambright. Paul Sweeney, with Coughlin & Gerhart, represented the city during the appeal process.

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