Town officials and the North Kingstown fire union are expected to return to the bargaining table after a Superior Court judge ruled against an ordinance that implemented at mandatory 24-hour shift for firefighters.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge Brian Stern release his 28-page ruling on the ordinance y. Stern ordered the town to “unring the bell” and return to pre-ordinance work schedules and pay. According to Stern, the town violated the town charter and state laws by making these unilateral changes without first negotiating or winning via arbitration. In fact, in 2011 the town's proposal for 24-hour shifts was shot down by an arbitration board that stated that North Kingstown financial situation "does not mandate such a drastic change."
On Monday, North Kingstown Fire Union (Local 1651) President Ray Furtado delivered a letter of intent to begin bargain negotiations for the next fiscal year. According to Furtado, he hopes both sides will sit down to resolve issues surrounding the 24-hour shift, Stern’s decision and the upcoming contract.
“I’m hopefully they will assess the massive damages they’ve incurred at this point,” said Furtado. “I hope they start working to solve this problem rather than further litigation.”
During Monday night’s town council meeting, Town Manager Michael Embury said the two parties would be sitting down soon to begin talks.
“I am pleased they want to come back to the table,” said Embury, who added the two sides will be sitting down within the next 10 days per state law.
The council is planning to meet later this week after reviewing Stern’s ruling to decide the next course of action. The town has 30 days before Stern’s order goes into effect to either “unring the bell” or appeal the decision to Rhode Island Supreme Court.
In a memo to members of the North Kingstown Town Council, Embury disagreed with the court’s decision on the matter, calling it a “head scratcher.” Embury believed that the judge did not have all the facts before him and Superior Court did not have the jurisdiction to make such a decision. Embury added that the decision contradicts several Supreme Court decisions and that town officials did not violate the town charter with the passage of the ordinance.
For Local 1651, the decision is a validation of a nearly year-long fight against the changes. Since the new schedule went into effect in March 2012, Furtado estimates that the town owes the union nearly $1.3 million in backpay and damages.
Furtado adds the new schedule has resulted in firefighters sometimes working double shifts or more. The department has also had difficulty hiring new employees for its six vacant positions.
“Clearly it’s because of the situation with the town,” said Furtado. “Nobody wants the job. We can’t find good people for these positions.”
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