The Watertown Firefighters are not going away quietly after the Town Council rejected an arbitration panel’s award, and have filed suit asking the court to have the Council’s vote voided, bring the vote back for another vote and make the vote only based on the town’s ability to pay the contract.
The suit, which was filed in Middlesex Superior Court on March 19, contends that the Town Council illegally met in executive session (closed to the public) to discuss the contract. An that members exceeded their authority by not just voting on the town’s ability to pay the contract but whether it is comparable to other union’s agreements.
Local 1347 – the Watertown fire union – wants to court to void the Council’s vote, require the Town Manager to resubmit a request to fund the arbitration award, and when the vote is retaken, they seek to have only the town’s “unencumbered funds” considered when decided if the town can afford the contract.
Watertown firefighters have been without a contact since June 30, 2009. After negotiations failed, the two sides had five bargaining sessions from November 2013 to March 2014 with an arbitration panel consisting of one union arbitrator, one employer arbitrator and one neutral arbitrator. The panel issued its award in October 2014 which would give the firefighters raises, including $2.74 million in back pay for raises, longevity payment and for EMT qualifications.
The Council brought the contract up for public discussion in the fall of 2014. They went into executive session to discuss the contract at its Nov. 25 meeting, and again on Dec. 9. At the second meeting, the vote was taken, and eight of nine Councilors voted against the arbitration award.
Councilors who voted against the contract said that it would not be fair to give the Firefighters more of a raise than other unions – who had take raise of 0, 0, 2.5 percent and 2.5 percent in fiscal years 2010-13.
The suit claims the Council exceeded their authority, claiming that only the chief executive officer, Town Manager Michael Driscoll, may conduct negotiations with the unions. In case of the police and fire unions they may also reach an agreement through direct negotiations or if that fails with the Joint Labor Management Committee.
“The legislative body of a municipality is given no responsibility for the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements, but rather is responsible for the appropriating, or not, funds to pay the incremental cost items of any agreement reached by the chief executive officers either through negotiations, or, in the case of police and fire unions, through interest arbitration,” the suit reads.
The firefighters allege that the Town Council’s role is only to determine if the town has the money to pay for the agreed contract or arbitration. At the meeting Driscoll noted that the town does have the money to cover the raises in the arbitration award.
“The Town Council exceeded the scope of its authority under the Law, and impermissibly usurped authority of the chief executive officer, when it failed to fund the arbitration Award because of its dissatisfaction with the merits of the Award rather than because of the unavailability of unencumbered funds required for such funding,” the suit reads.
The suit also says Council improperly went into executive session to discuss “strategy with respect go litigation … as an open meeting may have detrimental effect on the Town’s bargaining and litigation position.”
The suit alleges the Council violated and exceeded the scope and purposes of the Executive Session section of the Open Meeting Law.
“There was no strategy to be formulated, no bargaining position to be had, and no open litigation to be discussed,” the suit reads. “The Town Council’s sole authority and responsibility was to appropriate or not funding for the Award.”