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Lockport firefighters win appeal on issue of arbitration over chief

LOCKPORT – Because New York State strongly presumes that disputes between governments and public employee unions should not be settled by courts, the Lockport firefighters union is entitled to arbitration on the question of which officers should be eligible to become fire chief.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court on Friday unanimously reversed a lower court decision that barred arbitration over a 2014 rule change that added Municipal Training Officer Luca C.P. Quagliano to the list of those allowed to take the civil service examination for chief.

Bryan J. Goldberger, the city’s labor attorney, said Saturday that the ruling has no impact on Patrick K. Brady, who was promoted to chief in March after serving as interim chief upon the retirement of Thomas J. Passuite last December.

Some city officials wanted Quagliano to become chief, so the Fire Board asked the city Civil Service Commission in 2014 to change the eligibility requirements to include him.

However, Quagliano came in fifth on the civil service exam, and state law says only the top three can be considered for an appointment unless they are no longer interested in the job.

The city and the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association had signed an agreement allowing creation of the training officer job but barred that person from applying for chief. At the time, only assistant chiefs with at least two years in that post were allowed to seek promotion to chief.

The Civil Service Commission enlarged the field by adding captains, assistant chiefs with only one year in that grade, and Quagliano. Union President Kevin W. Pratt said that because of the prior agreement on the training officer, the union filed a grievance.

“If you want to make a change, you sit down at the table and you negotiate it. ...The city needs to realize you can’t unilaterally make changes to a collective-bargaining agreement just because you want to,” Pratt said.

But last year, State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. granted the city’s request to bar the union from seeking state arbitration on that issue. Kloch was wrong, said the appellate panel in Rochester.

“This state has a strong public policy favoring arbitration of public-sector labor disputes,” the appeals court wrote, adding that terms of promotion are among the topics that should be negotiated.

“I’m not sure an arbitrator can overtake a ruling by a municipal Civil Service Commission,” Goldberger said. But the appeals court specifically rejected that argument, and added that a union victory at arbitration “would not compel (the city) to hire an unqualified candidate for the position of fire chief.”

The city sand union have several arbitrations pending. The main one is binding arbitration over a new contract, currently scheduled for late March. Arbitration also is expected over the city’s privatization of its ambulance service.

Goldberger said an arbitrator recently ruled that the city violated the union contract through its unilateral alteration of health insurance coverage for retired firefighters. “The arbitrator didn’t make us give anything back,” Goldberger said, “because we are reimbursing any difference in copays.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com