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Youngstown fire dispute heats up

YOUNGSTOWN — An attorney representing the State Employment Relations Board said Youngstown’s attempt to dismiss a civil lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the city from reducing the number of battalion fire chiefs is “patently absurd.”

In a response filed Monday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, Lisa A. Reid, an assistant state attorney general representing SERB, argued that the city’s request is without merit.

In a Jan. 6 filing, Jeffrey Moliterno, the city’s senior assistant law director, asked Magistrate Dominic J. DeLaurentis Jr. to dismiss SERB’s request for an injunction to stop the city from eliminating three battalion chiefs through attrition. Among Moliterno’s arguments were SERB failed to show “irreparable injury” to itself, didn’t satisfy the legal requirement to obtain an injunction, isn’t likely to win on the case’s merits and the state agency made no mention of harm if the injunction isn’t granted.

Reid wrote in Monday’s response: “Defying logic, the city suggests that because SERB is the complainant in this case, it must show irreparable injury to itself rather than the (firefighters) union.” She wrote that SERB acts as an “extension of the charging party union who faces substantial and irreparable harm. Further, SERB explains that if the union were harmed before a full and final hearing of the pending ULP (unfair labor practice), this would permanently undermine SERB’s authority and duties granted to it by the General Assembly.”

Also, Reid wrote: “SERB has already found probable cause to believe the city violated” state law, and “SERB and the union will suffer irreparable harm if the injunctive relief is not granted.”

SERB ruled Oct. 31 “that probable cause existed to believe that the city had committed or was committing unfair labor practices” by retaliating against the union getting the radio upgrades when it decided to reduce battalion chiefs. SERB had a Dec. 16 special meeting in which its members voted to seek the preliminary injunction and filed the court document two days later.

SERB filed a civil lawsuit Dec. 18 against the city to stop it from cutting the number of battalion chiefs in the fire department from six to three through attrition. SERB is seeking a temporary restraining order and an “injunction returning the (firefighters) union and city of Youngstown to the status quo as it existed prior to the alleged illegal acts of the city of Youngstown in eliminating” the positions.

SERB contends the reduction is Youngstown “retaliating against the union for filing a grievance on the issue of the city’s refusal to provide safe radio equipment.”

The firefighters union has complained for more than two years about the inadequacies of the radio system and the need to upgrade it. On Dec. 5, the city agreed to upgrade the equipment — estimated to cost $285,000 — with the work to be done in late 2020.

City administration officials have said to pay for the upgrades, it would eliminate three battalion chief positions. City council voted Nov. 13 to reduce the number of battalion chiefs.

The union and SERB say that’s retaliation and a safety issue. The second battalion chief responding to a fire serves as the safety officer at the scene, coordinating safety efforts. City officials say fire captains and lieutenants will be trained to be safety officers.

DeLaurentis is to decide next Monday whether to grant the injunction sought by SERB to stop the battalion chiefs reduction. One battalion chief, Gary Ditullio, retired Dec. 3. A second battalion chief is expected to retire in about 12 to 18 months, and it’s unknown when a third would leave.

The firefighters union filed a motion to intervene in the case Dec. 20.

On Jan. 6, Moliterno wrote the union’s request should be denied because its filing was “procedurally deficient as it does not contain a pleading of any form.”

In a Friday response, Ryan J. Lemmerbrock, an attorney for the union, wrote: “The union’s intervention is procedurally proper because the union adopted SERB’s initial pleading and the union satisfied all of the requirements for intervention.”

He called the city’s objection “another attempt to attack SERB’s petition for injunctive relief on the merits.”

dskolnick@tribtoday.com