CANTON — In an almost deserted St. Lawrence County courtroom Friday, it was revealed that two more Ogdensburg firefighters have opted to retire and one is under “disciplinary review” as the city and its fire union took their battle over minimum manning a step further in state Supreme Court. No decision on the matter was issued from the bench Friday by Judge Mary M. Farley, but an “expedited” written decision was promised.
The courtroom Friday was nearly empty. The lawyers weren’t at their respective tables, preparing to defend their positions, and the judge was not seated at her bench. Instead, the judge was in her chambers, and the lawyers called in from other locations. In the space in front of the bench, a flatscreen TV displaying a video conference call was mounted on a stand, which stood looming over the courtroom — all thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
During the video call, Paul J. Sweeney, representing the city, spoke of “breaking news” during his oral arguments Friday morning. The low-quality audio reverberated off the walls as he revealed there are now three firefighters in total who have expressed an interest in the city’s $25,000 retirement incentive available to eligible firefighters, and another Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, member is under “review” for unspecified disciplinary actions.
It was confirmed later Friday morning by City Manager Stephen P. Jellie, as well as union President Jason T. Bouchard, that retirement notices were received Thursday from two more firefighters. The first firefighter to express interest, and contact the New York State Retirement System, did so before the new year. It was later revealed this person is a captain within the department.
A fourth firefighter, a person who the city has proposed the removal of, had a disciplinary hearing Wednesday. Mr. Jellie said he’s now waiting on the hearing officer’s recommendation, which will allow Mr. Jellie to ultimately make a decision about the firefighter’s fate within the department. The city manager makes the final decision pertaining to disciplinary matters.
Mr. Jellie said the issue is “an active personnel matter,” for which he had no comment.
Mr. Sweeney, Coughlin & Gerhart, Binghamton, did not return a request for comment as of the time of this report.
The lawyer representing the fire union, Nathaniel G. Lambright, offered no rebuttal during Friday morning’s arguments, but later said the retirements are not official. He also said the personnel matter discussed in court is in no way “finished” and will most likely be litigated “for years.”
“It’s just another breach of the contract,” said Mr. Lambright, Blitman & King, Syracuse.
Mr. Bouchard echoed Mr. Lambright’s remarks, saying there is no “finality” to the retirement notices at this point.
Firefighters have to express written consent that they’re interested in retiring, which will prompt Mr. Jellie to issue the firefighter their $25,000 offer. The firefighter has to accept, then has two days to contact the state’s retirement system, which has to confirm the retirement.
The firefighters who have expressed retirement interest, as well as those who were issued layoff notices, have until Jan. 22 — their last day on the job. But, according to Mr. Bouchard, any firefighter who has expressed interest to retire can “pull their papers” at any point before then if they choose to stay.
The city and its fire union have been at odds for more than two months after the city introduced and passed its 2021 budget, which included the elimination of seven firefighter positions.
When the 2021 budget was passed by City Council on Dec. 9, the city had 27 firefighters, but factoring in the seven job cuts, 20 firefighters were to remain, dipping below the 24-person minimum required by the city and union’s minimum staffing agreement.
Last month, five layoff notices were issued as, at the time, one fire captain had chosen to accept the city’s $25,000 retirement incentive, and a sixth firefighter is out on leave for an unspecified injury. The layoffs took effect Jan. 1.
Despite the two additional firefighters who have chosen to retire, all five layoff notices are still valid, pending confirmation from the state’s retirement system. Upon the system’s confirmation, the city will then make a decision as to which employees will be returned to duty, Mr. Jellie said Friday.
On Dec. 18, the union filed suit in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County against the city in order to temporarily halt city officials from reducing the size of the fire department staff. Ten days later, Judge Farley denied the preliminary injunction.
During Friday’s arguments, Mr. Lambright again asked the judge to restore the five laid-off firefighters to their posts within the department, citing city residents will suffer “irreparable harm” due to the job cuts. But Mr. Sweeney said in his rebuttal that the city is within its right to lay off the firefighters.
In an attempt to avoid a “lengthy” court battle, Mr. Jellie has issued two separate contract offers to the union. The first was offered before the new year, which the union promptly rejected in a blistering letter sent to Mr. Bouchard and later shared with media. Mr. Jellie extended a second, and final, offer on Jan. 3, which Mr. Bouchard is still considering.
Mr. Bouchard said Friday the union will continue to think it over through the weekend.
Once grievances were aired Friday morning, Judge Farley said, due to the nature of the case and the public’s interest, she will issue a prompt, written decision on the matter — whether the city’s laid-off firefighters get to keep their jobs.