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Court won’t hear fire district case

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Stacy Vogel
November 7, 2007
— Negotiation appears to be the final option for the Edgerton Fire Protection District after the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of its case against three fired employees.

What remains unclear is which side will take the next step.


Though the fire district commission agreed to continue seeking a settlement when it voted Sept. 4 to petition for Supreme Court review, no negotiating went on in the meantime, said Patrick Kilbane, union representative for Arnie Lund, Mark Backes and Ken Crandall.


The three were the district’s only full-time, paid employees when they were fired in 2003. The district said they were fired for budgetary reasons; the men said they were fired for joining a union.


Since then, the case has wound its way through the courts. On Aug. 16, the Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling ordering the men reinstated with back pay.


The Supreme Court declined Tuesday to hear the district’s appeal of that decision. The move brings the court case to an end, at least in state court, said Amanda Todd, a court spokeswoman.


“It’s the end of the line unless there’s some federal issue they would take through the federal system,” she said.


That leaves negotiation as the district’s last option. Two sticking points have tied up negotiations in the past:


-- Reinstating the firefighters. The 2005 ruling from the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission ordered the men reinstated, but the fire district commission has made it clear it doesn’t want to re-hire the men.


-- Back pay. The ruling ordered the district to pay the men back wages and benefits “less any amount earned or received but for their termination.”


The men have all held jobs since their firing, but Kilbane argues they could have made some of those wages while working for the fire district because they all held outside, part-time jobs while they were firefighters.


Kilbane has estimated the amount owed the firefighters at $700,000 but said the exact amount is impossible to know without hiring an actuary to go over the data.


The union suggested terms of a settlement, including a buyout of the men’s jobs, before the district voted to appeal to the Supreme Court. It never received a response, Kilbane said.


Richard Grant, attorney for the fire district, said this morning he wasn’t sure what Kilbane was referring to.


In a Sept. 5 interview with The Janesville Gazette, Grant said the union was asking for “a huge sum of money to settle the case.”


Grant declined to comment this morning on the Supreme Court’s decision because he hadn’t yet talked to his client, he said.


Kilbane wasn’t sure if there was a time limit for the district to reinstate the firefighters, he said. The decision from the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission in 2005 gave the district 20 days to show compliance with the order.


“It’s my impression that if they did not put the guys back to work or if they refused to do that, then they’d essentially be in contempt of court, and I can assure you that we’ll pursue every legal avenue available if they don’t comply,” Kilbane said.


STORYLINE

The issue: Ken Crandall, Mark Backes and Arnie Lund were the only paid, full-time employees of the Edgerton Fire Protection District when they were fired in June 2003. The men said they were fired for joining the International Association of Firefighters.


The union filed an unfair labor practice suit with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, which in 2004 ruled the firing illegal. It ordered the men reinstated with back pay and benefits. Since then, the firefighters’ case has been upheld in a series of appeals.


On Sept. 4, the fire district commission voted to appeal the latest ruling to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.


What’s new: The Supreme Court declined to hear the case Tuesday.


What’s next: The district has exhausted its legal options in state court. It now must reinstate the men or negotiate their buyout, said a union representative for the men.



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