Court hears Poquonnock Bridge firefighters' contract case

New Britain — The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board and the firefighters’ union argued their cases Tuesday in New Britain Superior Court about whether the district should have to honor a disputed 10-year labor contract that provides annual wage increases of 3 percent.

F. Jerome O’Malley, lawyer for the fire district, said the contract approved in July 2012 is invalid because then-president Christopher Clark never got district approval for the funding needed to pay for it. Clark, a professional firefighter from Waterford, also failed to get an actuarial evaluation of the cost of additional benefits to retirees, O’Malley said.

“These were not typical, arm’s-length, good faith negotiations,” O’Malley said.

But Judge Charles Lee said he didn’t see evidence of collusion.

“If they played by the rules, they played by the rules, and I think that’s the point,” he said.

Lee said Kale Kiely, the union president, was “very straight” when he testified that the union sought a 10-year agreement because it feared the district might be terminated. Lee also noted that Clark got no money out of the contract.

Even if the district got a “bad deal,” that doesn’t mean there was collusion, Lee said.

Lawyers for the union, Town of Groton, labor board and fire district spoke during Tuesday’s hearing. Lee’s decision is pending.

The 10-year labor agreement was approved in July 2012 by a vote of 2-1. The two votes in favor of the contract were cast by Kevin Czapla, a business owner and lieutenant in the Old Mystic Fire Department, and Thomas Wimler, who works in emergency services in Durham. Current board member Nancy Beckwith voted no.

After the vote, the board was expanded to nine members and the new board later voted to rescind approval of the contract.

The union objected, and the state Board of Labor Relations found in its favor last August, ordering the fire district to pay any back wages and benefits it owed. The fire district board then appealed the decision to Superior Court.

In addition to higher pay, the contract requires additional staffing, increased paid personal leave for firefighters and a boost in benefits for retirees.

Fire district board members have said that as a practical matter, a court ruling in favor of the union would accelerate the rate at which the district would run out of money.

Both sides will be back in New London Superior Court today for a separate hearing on a request for an injunction to rescind the layoff of nine firefighters.

The district laid off the firefighters on July 25, leaving the department with one engine and a minimum of three firefighters on duty. It previously ran two engines and had five firefighters on duty.

The fire district board also has a meeting scheduled at 7 p.m. on Thursday in the Groton Senior Center to discuss items including a “truck purchase” and an evaluation of the fire chief. Poquonnock Bridge does not have a working ladder truck and cannot reach to fight fires above the second floor.

Steve Holyfield, one of the nine firefighters laid off, said after the hearing in New Britain, “How can you go buying a new firetruck when you just laid nine guys off?”

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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