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FIREFIGHTERS TAKE COMPLAINTS TO COURT

The battle between the city and its firefighters was back in State Supreme Court Monday as attorneys haggled over promotions, sick time, safety and sewage.

"I was passed over for a promotion and now they are trying to throw out my request for arbitration," said Capt. Simon Zambotti, a 29-year veteran of the Fire Department.

At issue was the June promotion of Capt. Nicholas Vilardo to battalion chief.

The problem, according to Zambotti, was that Vilardo did not top the Civil Service promotion list, and according to department precedent should not have been promoted.

Under state Civil Service Law, howecer, vacancies may be filled from the top three names on a promotional list.

"I feel it's discrimination against me because of my union activity," said Zambotti, who topped the promotion list. "I'm on the negotiation committee," he said outside the courtroom.

The promotion dispute is one in a series of union complaints against the city alleging unfair labor practices.

The complaints -- resulting in union demands for arbitration -- have wound their way to State Supreme Court and represent a volatile relationship between the 132-member Fire Department and Fire Chief Paul S. Shanks.

"The level of bad faith is astounding," said attorney Paul Weiss, in reference to the Zambotti case. "It's clear that this should go to arbitration."

"This is pure and simple harassment," said Capt. Charles Naughton, an observer in court. "They are wasting the city's time and money."

Shanks, out of town on business, was not available for comment.

Justice Jacqueline M. Koshian Monday reserved decision on the promotion issue, and set a Nov. 3 court date on the following grievances:

A new sick leave policy -- the directive was issued in a February memo from Shanks "to deter potential abuses of sick time," according to court documents. The policy requires firefighters to confine themselves to their homes when sick. Under the policy, firefighters must obtain permission from the fire chief or his designee to leave their homes for medical appointments and therapy sessions.

A new uniform policy -- issued in the same February memo, the revised rule was sparked by "complaints of firefighters wearing department uniforms in bars, restaurants and on golf courses," according to court papers. The policy, in part, states that no off-duty member of the department "shall wear any part of his (or) her official uniform, display any badge, departmental emblem or departmental insignia anyplace within the city limits" without written permission from the fire chief and except when traveling to and from work.

Safety conditions -- sparked by allegations of raw sewage in a firehouse basement, firefighters charge "the city has failed to provide safe and sanitary conditions at Firehouse 9 at 1124 Military Road. Raw sewage in the basement is a common occurrence," said the complaint filed by the Niagara Falls Uniformed Firefighters Association. The city's response, filed by Assistant Corporation Counsel Christopher Mazur indicated remedial action had been taken.

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