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N.Y. officials drop efforts to have final ruling in fire, police disciplinary process

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration planned to have a hearing officer rule, in public, on discipline instead of an arbitration process

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The Public Safety Building, headquarters for the Syracuse Police Department. (Rylee Kirk)

By Jeremy Boyer

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The city of Syracuse has abruptly halted years of legal efforts that tried to gain more power over police and firefighter discipline.

Days before the state’s highest court was scheduled to hear arguments, the city and its public safety unions agreed to withdraw legal cases regarding the role of outside arbitration in the discipline process.

Instead, the city and its police union have agreed to changes in how arbitration works, while a state law passed in 2022 essentially settled the legal dispute with the firefighter union.

It’s a stark reversal from the stance Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration took in 2019, when the corporation counsel’s office notified the unions of changes coming to the discipline process. The plan was for the mayor to appoint a hearing officer to make final rules on disputes with hearings to be held in public, unlike the more secretive arbitration process.

The city’s actions stemmed from a 2017 ruling involving the city of Schenectady by the state Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. In that case, the judges found that an early 20th century state law put final discipline decisions in the hands of public safety department heads in a group of cities that included Syracuse.

City attorneys cited that ruling in declaring that the arbitration process in police and fire contracts was not lawful. The unions disagreed and litigation began in 2019.

Lawsuits have centered on the question of whether the discipline process for those public safety employees should be negotiated as part of labor contracts. The past practice for decades was to include that in collective bargaining. As a result, both unions had secured the right to challenge disciplinary actions through an independent arbitration process.

Lower court rulings favored the unions. Those judges determined that for Syracuse, the city’s 1960 charter overruled the state’s Second Class Cities Law, which was enacted in 1906. The charter said that employee disciplinary was subject to state Civil Service Law, and judges found that meant the collective bargaining requirement applied to Syracuse’s police officers and firefighters.

The city asked the Court of Appeals to overturn the lower court rulings, and the high court agreed to consider the matter. Oral arguments were scheduled for last week, but the police union case was withdrawn on Oct. 13, followed four days later by the removal of the firefighter union litigation.

City officials said they agreed to drop the police discipline case in exchange for changes in the arbitration process that they believe are fairer and will lead to better-qualified arbitrators making decisions.

Previous language in the police union contract required discipline matters be decided by an arbitrator, chosen from a numeric rotation of just four possible arbitrators who were named in the contract. Going forward, the field of arbitrators will come from a much larger list of those certified by the American Arbitration Association.

In addition, the AAA rules will apply to the process, which means both sides will have a say in which an arbitrator gets chosen instead of one being selected randomly from that list of four arbitrators that was part of the old contract language.

“Reaching this agreement takes away the risks associated with continuing to pursue the appeal while at the same time achieving a framework that will provide accountability of and due process for the officers,” Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh said in a statement. “The outcome contributes to our goal of improving the discipline process for officers and the department which will be better for our community.”

Syracuse Police Benevolent Association President Joseph Moran said effective communication between city hall and the union in recent years lead to the agreement.

“Since I began my role as PBA president, Mayor Walsh has always maintained an open-door policy,” said Moran, who was elected by union members to be their leader in 2020. “As a result of our professional working relationship, we were able to mutually resolve this issue.”

The firefighters union case involved many of the same questions regarding the 1906 state law and 1960 city charter, but the union also argued that many of the issues behind the Court of Appeals ruling in 2017 were unique to police work.

Before the Court of Appeals considered that question, however, the state Legislature enacted a new law that clarified the matter. A 2022 law dubbed the Firefighters Bill of Rights explicitly requires the discipline process be subject to collective bargaining.

Central New York governments have lost some high-profile discipline arbitration cases involving public safety employees in recent years.

Those include the 2018 reinstatement of a Syracuse firefighter who had been fired because he fled the scene of a fatal automobile crash the year before in which his friend drunkenly ran over another man. In 2019, an arbitrator overruled the Onondaga County sheriff’s suspension and resignation demand of a deputy who had twice crashed his personal vehicle and drove for 2.5 miles off the road while drunk.

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