NY city, labor attorney to part ways in fire department case

The city’s negotiating team will take over and negotiate with the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191 over the stipulation that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times


Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — Labor attorney Terry O’Neil soon will be done with representing the city in the long drawn out contract dispute with the firefighters’ union after his firm racked up more than $850,000 in legal bills.

Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said it won’t be soon enough.

(Photo/Watertown Firefighters Benevolent)
(Photo/Watertown Firefighters Benevolent)

“It’s time to say goodbye and be done,” she said. “I think he’s reached the end of the road.”

She’s frustrated that the legal bills now total $858,975 from the time when Mr. O’Neil’s firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC, was hired in 2015.

During this fiscal year, the city spent $146,739.57 and the tab will continue to grow as Mr. O’Neil finishes up his legal work over the coming months.

Once Mr. O’Neil is out of the picture, the city’s negotiating team — led by City Manager Rick Finn, Human Resources Director Matthew Roy and City Attorney Robert J. Slye — will take over and negotiate with the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191, Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. said Friday.

“We’ll be doing it in-house,” Mayor Butler said.

The Long Island attorney is finishing up some lingering legal tasks for the city that include going before an arbitrator to resolve the labor dispute’s main sticking point, the stipulation that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times.

He’s also still working on a ruling to decide the nuts and bolts of the contract dispute, called “interest arbitration,” which will determine such issues as how much firefighters are paid and how much they pay for health benefits.

A three-member panel — consisting of Mr. O’Neil, union attorney Nathaniel Lambright and an impartial arbitrator — held two days of hearings last fall. The decision should come in June.

But union President Daniel Daugherty said Mr. O’Neil continues to purposely delay — as he has done since he was retained as the city’s attorney — getting those issues to a conclusion.

Recently, Mr. O’Neil rejected a list of arbitrators that the state Public Employee Relations Board provided and now another list must be drawn up, Mr. Daugherty said.

The attorney also continues to submit additional evidence and opinions about interest arbitration, further delaying that ruling, Mr. Daugherty said.

Mr. O’Neil, who could not be reached for comment on Saturday, also is involved in a few minor improper labor practices cases that the union has against the city.

After that, Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. said there won’t be any more work for the Long Island labor lawyer.

“All the heavy lifting will be done,” he said.

Four years ago, the city retained Mr. O’Neil to handle negotiations with the firefighters. The New York Conference of Mayors provided the names of Mr. O’Neil and three other attorneys to choose from. Mr. O’Neil was known across the state for his expertise in labor matters.

It was the first time that the city had gone with an outside attorney for negotiations with the bargaining unit.

Much of Mr. O’Neil’s work and legal bills revolved around defending the city from the “minimum manning” clause in the contract that stipulates 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times.

In court, Mr. O’Neil argued that the minimum manning issue resulted in “no-layoff clauses” and job security. The city maintained the fire department was overstaffed. The firefighters’ union contended it was a safety issue.

The case went through the courts, starting with a decision in the city’s favor when state Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky determined in January 2018 that the city can block arbitration in the contract dispute.

The union appealed and won when the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department, Rochester, unanimously agreed in February to allow an arbitrator to determine if minimum manning can continue.

In a controversial vote in February, council members decided to take the arbitration case to the state’s highest court. Mr. O’Neil convinced council members to proceed with the case.

On June 9, however, the Court of Appeals denied the city’s request to hear the case, so it will be up to an arbitrator to decide.

It’s expected that the firefighters’ union will win.

Once the matter goes through arbitration, the two sides must then begin negotiating a new contract that goes back to July 2016.

Yet Mayor Butler says the city did the right thing, noting that the city had to pursue the contract dispute in court because it had to protect city taxpayers from the financial drain that minimum manning had cost the city for decades.

He also said Mr. O’Neil’s legal arguments “were well thought out and articulate.” But Mr. O’Neil and the city came up against a court that’s pro-union, the mayor said.

“The Appellate Division’s decision on manning clearly protected the union’s position and the contract itself,” Mayor Butler said. “And it will be up to the arbitrator to tackle, if he wants to, that issue.”

It will be decades before the city can pursue the minimum-manning issue once again, he predicted.

“We knew it was going to cost a lot of money,” Mayor Butler said.

And the legal bills will continue.

Mr. Finn appropriated an additional $20,000 in his proposal for legal bills associated with the fire department, which would then put the amount to more than $875,000.

Councilman Cody J. Horbacz acknowledged it’s creeping to the $1.3 million that it would cost for a new ladder truck. Last week, council members decided against buying a new truck, and, instead, to refurbish a 2004 aerial truck, citing the city cannot afford a new one.

The city never got its money’s worth in fighting the union for so long, Councilman Horbacz said. There were too few court victories that went the city’s way, he said.

“We spent almost $900,000 to find out we have no contract and we still have minimum manning,” Councilman Horbacz said.

Looking back now, the city could have negotiated a new contract with the union years ago and saved a lot of money, the councilman said.

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©2019 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

 

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