N.Y. Firefighters at Odds With City Over Inspections

April 4, 2013
A legal showdown could be in store for the firefighters' union and Watertown officials over who does fire inspections on commercial buildings.

April 04--The city of Watertown and its firefighters' union could be headed toward a legal showdown over who conducts fire inspections on commercial buildings.

The city has filed a state Supreme Court petition asking that a judge permanently stay a demand for arbitration brought by the Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191 in the matter. A "show cause" hearing has been set for April 18 to allow both sides to present their arguments.

The issue stems from a 2002 change in the state's Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Codes, which modified standards under which the inspections should be conducted. However, the proposed codes could not be administered or enforced unless an individual municipality adopted a local law enacting the new codes, which the City Council did in 2005.

The 2005 law stated that the city code enforcement supervisor, as well as inspectors within the code enforcement office designated by the city manager, are to be responsible for commercial building inspections. In 2012, two firefighters were assigned to the code enforcement office to help code enforcement inspectors with the work. The change ended a decades-long practice of having Local 191 members conduct the inspections.

In February, the union filed a demand with the state Public Employment Relations Board seeking arbitration of its claim that commercial code inspection was work to be done "exclusively" by its members.

The city responded with its request for a permanent stay of arbitration which, if approved, would resolve the matter in the city's favor.

The city contends that state public policy prohibits arbitration of a City Council's legislative acts, including the enactment of the city's law stating that only code enforcement personnel and the firefighters assigned to code enforcement are authorized to conduct code enforcement inspections.

"We're just saying it's not arbitrable," said Robert J. Slye, the city's attorney. "You don't get to arbitrate local laws."

The union's attorney, Nathaniel G. Lambright, Syracuse, disagrees, stating that municipalities cannot arbitrarily change terms of collective bargaining agreements with its employees.

"Local governments are not permitted to simply pass a law that would invalidate (employees') ability to bargain and to preserve agreements that have been made," he said.

Mr. Lambright said it is a question of safety, as the inspections have afforded firefighters the chance to familiarize themselves with the interior conditions and layouts of commercial buildings.

"We believe that the unilateral change puts firefighters and the citizens at risk due to the fact you are not going to have firefighters with first-hand, visual access to the inside of buildings in the event that later on there's a fire," Mr. Lambright said.

He said the union soon will file a formal response to the city's contentions with Supreme Court. The city further argues that the statute of limitations under which the firefighters can demand arbitration has expired. The city maintains that the act the firefighters complain of -- the removal of inspections from their job duties -- occurred in 2005 when the City Council enacted the local law adopting its new codes.

The time limit to challenge the change is six years and the city claims it is now closer to eight years since the action occurred.

The Public Employment Relations Board has informed the parties that it will take no action on the union's arbitration demand while the legal action is pending.

Copyright 2013 - Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

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