Judge denies request for arbitration amidst fire union, city dispute

The denial is the latest development in what has become a publicly contentious clash over the two sides’ collective bargaining efforts toward a new contract

By George Myers
Kokomo Tribune

KOKOMO, Ind. — In a blow to the Kokomo firefighters’ union, a Howard County judge late last week denied a sweeping request that was at the center of a recent complaint filed against city officials.

The decision, denying the union's request for arbitration and injunctive relief, is the latest development in what has become a publicly contentious clash over the two sides’ collective bargaining efforts toward a new contract - a process that began in June and has included at least eight private meetings.

In early December, the Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396 filed a civil suit in Howard Superior Court 4, requesting Judge George Hopkins prohibit the city from terminating the existing fire contract at the end of the year and "until such time that the matter can be arbitrated."

Issues between city and union officials first became public on Nov. 1, when the firefighters’ union filed a grievance against the city of Kokomo relating specifically to the city’s denial of a request for arbitration.

The grievance, first disclosed by Local 396 President Chris Frazier, stated, “the city has failed and refused to engage in collective bargaining in good faith.”

Notably, the grievance also claimed the city “has refused the Union’s submission to arbitration of items at impasse despite past precedent requiring such submission.”

That grievance was denied by the Kokomo Board of Public Works on Nov. 27.

City ordinance lays out a 45-day negotiating window during which arbitration can be requested. The two sides began contract negotiations on June 7, according to Frazier, and the union submitted a written intent to bring the matter to arbitration on Oct. 6.

But Local 396 President Chris Frazier believes a previous ruling, made in 2005 in Howard Superior Court I, set a precedent that if both sides agree to further negotiations, the period to enter into arbitration extends past 45 days.

The union was first informed in an email Oct. 25 by attorney David Swider, serving as outside counsel representing the city, that it would not agree to arbitration.

Specifically, documents filed in Hopkins’ court by the union stated that members “would be irreparably harmed if the terms of the current contract are allowed to lapse by the expiration of the contract on Dec. 31, 2017.”

The union also expressed, in court documents, concerns about the possibility of existing health insurance benefits being denied if the existing contract was allowed to expire on its scheduled end date.

Union officials also requested that the court mandate city officials to comply with what Local 396 members believe is “mandatory binding arbitration.”

The union, again citing health insurance concerns, also maintains that the city has attempted “to pressure Local 296 into signing an agreement that is preferential to the City and not the firefighters.”

The two sides then met in Superior Court 4 on Dec. 11 regarding the union’s filing of a complaint for “injunctive relief, mandate and arbitration order.”

Both sides argued their positions during the court hearing, with Frazier and Kokomo corporation counsel Beth Copeland taking the stand as witnesses.

As cited in Hopkins’ ruling, the union's representatives asserted “that its members would be irreparably harmed if the terms of the contract lapse upon the contact’s expiration. The plaintiff claims the members would not have health insurance benefits upon the expiration of the contract.”

The ruling later cites Frazier as saying that upon the contract lapsing “he and his family would not receive benefits from the defendant (city of Kokomo) including health care.”

But, the ruling continues, Kokomo firefighters, who are also city employees, can receive health benefits available to all municipal employes. Effectively, a firefighter must choose to be insured under the city's policies.

The open enrollment period for city health insurance for 2018 began on Nov. 13 and ended Dec. 1, according to court documents.

Those documents also state that Frazier enrolled himself and his family in the city’s health care plan for 2018 on Nov. 17.

Frazier did not return a request for comment for this story. City officials declined to provide comment.

“The court did not receive any evidence to prove that the expiration of the contract would have any negative impact on the plaintiff’s members like Mr. Frazier who chose the [city's] health care plan for 2018,” notes Hopkins’ ruling.

“The plaintiff (fire union) did not introduce any other evidence of possible irreparable harm” upon the contract expiring, it continues.

Additionally, the ruling cites Copeland’s assertion that firefighter wages will not be reduced with the contract’s expiration, as they are controlled by a salary ordinance already approved by the Kokomo Common Council.

By law, the city is also prohibited from “imposing a layoff of firefighters except for dire economic conditions,” according to court documents.

And in a previous statement to the Tribune, Copeland noted: “Regardless of how these legal proceedings unfold, local residents can be assured they will not see any difference in fire protection in 2018."

Ultimately, Hopkins ruled that neither party requested arbitration within the 45-day window following the first meeting, and never had any formal discussions about extending or waiving deadlines.

The ruling states that Local 396 “did not request arbitration in either a timely manner or in compliance with the ordinance. …The plaintiff failed to show any irreparable harm that would result if the contract expires after December 31, 2017. A court cannot base a decision on speculation or the possibility of further remote injury.”

It also stated that granting the union’s request would invade “the sanctity of contracts and [contradict] Indiana law.”

Upon his denial, Hopkins stated that the two sides “are expected and strongly encouraged to continue the collective bargaining process in good faith.”

Copyright 2017 Kokomo Tribune

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