Judge rules city treated fire union unfairly
YOUNGSTOWN — A judge agreed with the State Employment Relations Board that the city unfairly retaliated against its firefighters union when it sought to eliminate three battalion fire chief positions.
The retaliation came after the city agreed to provide upgrades to the fire department’s radio equipment — and then decided to save the money from that expense by reducing battalion chiefs through attrition from six to three. Only one position has been eliminated to date, and that occurred in December 2019.
In a Thursday ruling, Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Sweeney wrote: “The evidence establishes that the city, through threat and subsequent elimination of the battalion chief positions, sought to deter the union from exercising its right to pursue a grievance.”
The upgraded radio system cost approximately $275,000.
Each battalion chief reduction saves about $130,000 annually.
Charlie Smith, union president, said the union is “extremely happy with the decision.”
He added: “It’s a decision we knew was the right one from the beginning and we are very glad to see that upheld because at the end of the day it is another way to protect the citizens of Youngstown.”
Law Director Jeff Limbian said Thursday he hadn’t seen the decision.
Asked about an appeal, he said: “I will have to review and discuss with the mayor the city’s next course of action. It may take several days.”
The SERB board voted 3-0 June 11, 2020, in favor of the union that the city had violated its collective bargaining rights when it eliminated the battalion chief positions. The board determined the city improperly retaliated after agreeing to upgrades to the fire department’s radio equipment.
SERB ordered the city to cancel the reduction and promote a fire captain, Chad Manchester, to battalion chief with back pay to replace Gary Ditulio, who retired Dec. 3, 2019. No other battalion chiefs have retired.
The city filed a motion June 24, 2020, in common pleas court seeking a temporary stay on SERB’s decision, which Sweeney granted Aug. 7 while she reviewed the case. The city contended the elimination of battalion chiefs was a financial issue.
In her Thursday decision, Sweeney wrote: “The city had the economic wherewithal to purchase the radio equipment without cutting bargaining unit positions. This court is unpersuaded by the city’s restructuring and right-sizing defenses, noting that the city declined to call any financial expert / accountant at the SERB hearing. As a result, the court finds those defenses were pretextual.”
She added she agreed that “SERB correctly found that the city violated” state law “by threatening and subsequently eliminating battalion chief positions in retaliation for the union’s advancement of a grievance to arbitration.”
The city has lost case after case over this issue.
Common Pleas Judge John M. Durkin ruled June 9, 2020, that the city was in contempt of court for not filling the vacancy. Durkin’s decision supported a March 27, 2020, ruling from Magistrate Dominic J. DeLaurentis Jr. in favor of SERB, which filed a lawsuit against the city to stop the reduction in battalion chiefs while its board heard the union’s objections.
The SERB board voted 3-0 June 11, 2020, in favor of the union, upholding an April 17 decision from James R. Sprague, a SERB administrative law judge.
On Oct. 31, 2019, SERB ruled “that probable cause existed to believe that the city had committed or was committing unfair labor practices” over the radio equipment by cutting the positions.
The union had complained for more than two years about the inadequacies of the radio system and the need to upgrade it.
The union objected to eliminating the jobs as the second battalion chief responding to fires serves as the safety officer on the scene, coordinating safety efforts. City officials said fire captains and lieutenants would be trained to be safety officers.
Mayor Jamael Tito Brown’s administration — particularly fire Chief Barry Finley — and the firefighters union have had numerous disputes for the past three years.
In July 2020, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation’s Public Employee Risk Reduction Program issued four health and safety hazard violations against the city for failing to protect firefighters from the COVID-19 pandemic. Those issues were resolved.
The administration closed fire stations last June on a rotating basis because the fire department exceeded its yearly overtime budget in the first five months of the year. The union objected, saying the decision was dangerous and the city not filling positions caused the overtime issue.
The city closed stations on a rotating basis for about three months in 2018 because of overtime costs.
The union issued a no-confidence vote against Finley in December 2019 after expressing concern about his leadership, and the city closed Fire Station No. 7 on the North Side that same month over the objections of the union.
In Sweeney’s decision, she wrote between late April and June 2019, the two sides had other disputes.
That included Finley telling Smith he would no longer accept grievances from him on behalf of the union, the city’s allegation of the union participating in an unauthorized strike, the city filing an unfair labor practice charge related to the alleged unauthorized strike, an arbitration decision in the union’s favor concerning involuntary transfers and the union filing an unfair labor practice for Finley bringing in outside chiefs instead of battalion chiefs to cover for him when he wasn’t in the city.