WARWICK—On Monday, Superior Court Judge Brian Stern issued his briefing schedule to hear oral arguments regarding the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board’s (SLRB) petition to enforce its decision in favor of the North Kingstown Firefighters Association (NKFFA), Local 1651, which would award them approximately $2.5 million in lost wages. Stern, who was named earlier this month as the presiding justice over any litigation between the Town of North Kingstown, the SLRB and the firefighters, will also hear statements on the town’s appeal of the SLRB’s decision.
The town has until 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 1 to submit briefs, while the union and SLRB will have until Nov. 15 to submit responses to those briefs. After Nov. 15, the Superior Court will decide whether it needs additional information from either party and begin its decision process, a completion date for which is not yet known.
Last week, the NKFFA sought clarification from the Supreme Court as to whether its stay of May 10 extended to the SLRB’s decision, a motion which was denied by that court late last week. The move ‘essentially maintains the status quo between the parties since the implementation of the ordinance in March 2012,’ wrote the town’s attorney, Timothy Cavazza, in an email.
The upcoming schedule will also address the Superior Court’s jurisdiction in ruling on litigation between the town and the NKFFA, a question which the Superior Court posed to the Supreme Court in Stern’s Oct. 8 order.
“This court finds that there is a question raised under a fair reading of the Supreme Court’s May 10, 2013 order…that the stay ordered by the Supreme Court affects the Superior Court’s jurisdiction and potentially order change(s) to the status quo between the parties,” read Stern’s Oct. 8 order.
Ray Furtado, president of the NKFFA, does not expect the Supreme Court to make a decision until the winter or spring of 2014.
“It is a real mess, and it doesn’t look anything will develop,” he said.
On Sept. 27, the SLRB issued its decision in favor of the NKFFA, ordering the town to pay approximately $2.5 million to the firefighters for lost wages, as well as implementation of the previous, four-platoon scheduling system. Earlier this month, Superior Court presiding justice Alice Bridget Gibney ordered that all pending litigation involving either or both parties will be handled by Stern, who also denied the town’s request to recuse himself because of his Feb. 5 ruling in favor of the NKFFA.
The town and firefighters have been locked in a number of court cases regarding the town council’s March 12, 2012, including the town’s most recent appeal and request for a stay of the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board (SLRB’s) decision. The NKFFA has consistently asserted that moving to a three-platoon system, implemented March 11, 2012, by the town council, poses safety issues for the town’s residents.
“Clearly, this is a resounding victory for the union and the community at large,” said Furtado in response to the SLRB’s Sept. 27 decision. “The current shift schedules create unnecessary risks to both firefighters and residents.”
Town Manager Michael Embury defended the town’s position last week, stating that safety issues to both firefighters and residents have been overblown by the union.
“Our experts and their union experts stated that the three-platoon system is not a safety issue,” said Embury at the time. “There are plenty of the firefighters who had no problem under the old system working 48 straight hours, some of them even more than that, picking up overtime shifts when other people were out.”
“This is a critical issue for North Kingstown and other communities in the state, [and] there are certain management rights that we have,” he continued. “There are a lot of residents who will not write or say anything publicly, but I have had a number of people tell me that [they] are very supportive because they understand what is at stake here.”
Embury further stated that if Stern’s Feb. 7 decision, as well as the SLRB’s decision, in favor of the firefighters is indeed enforced through the court process, such an outcome would invalidate previous Superior and Supreme Court decisions, as well as the efficacy of the town charter as a town governance document.
“The real significance is that there are state Supreme Court decisions and we have a charter, [so] if Judge Stern’s decision stands, the charter is useless and you might as well hand over the keys to the unions because they will determine the budget for labor costs,” said Embury.
“In the end, does the town charter mean anything in the eyes of the court?” he added.
Furtado noted that the current proceedings makes negotiations between the town and the NKFFA for a 2013-14 contract year even more unclear.
“By statute, I have to file a letter with them to negotiate for the 2013-14 contract,” said Furtado. “That is another log on the fire, [but] maybe we can work something out.”