MONTPELIER — The city won in court, but the Montpelier firefighters union says it still got results with its lawsuit seeking a series of communications in which city officials discussed the department’s staffing and budget.
The lawsuit stemmed from the decision of the Montpelier City Council to eliminate a full-time firefighter position that is being vacated by retirement. In siding with the city, Washington County Superior Court Judge Robert R. Bent said the purpose of allowing privileged communication “is to allow decision makers access to the fuller spectrum of competing ideas.”
Bent’s ruling came out earlier this month.
“We feel that we were successful in getting the city to hand over a lot of documents that it didn’t want to,” said Lt. Jake Larrabee, president of Local 2287 of the International Association of Firefighters, speaking of the suit the union filed in January. “Although the judge ruled against us, we are still seeing this as a victory. We had initially sought more than 40 documents, and we ended up getting most of what we requested.”
Problems between city administration and the firefighters union erupted after the city unveiled its 2013 budget, which eliminated the position of a retiring firefighter. Firefighters gathered enough signatures to create a ballot item to fund a $54,669 firefighter position.
However, at the city’s final budget hearing Jan. 24, the City Council decided to reduce the total overall budget by roughly the same amount, forestalling the effectiveness of the ballot measure, which passed on Town Meeting Day by a vote of 1,198 to 1,098.
The city successfully argued before the court that releasing every requested document, which included emails and text messages between city officials including the mayor, city manager, councilors and Montpelier Fire and Ambulance Department officials, could set a harmful precedent with regard to the ability of city officials and staff to discuss certain issues out of the public spotlight.
In his finding, Bent said he had reviewed the requested documents. He wrote, “Considered as a whole, they can be characterized as discussing the action city management might take to present to the voters the decision to cut a firefighter’s position... The documents include a frank appraisal by the city manager to the mayor about the history of relations between the city and fire department employees and also discussion about drafts of proposed public communications.”
The lawsuit underlines tension between the city administration and the firefighters union regarding staffing.
With the elimination of a full-time position, the department will have only three full-time firefighters on duty for five out of seven overnight shifts.
A widely adopted standard calls for having four firefighters available: two to wait outside a burning structure, while two others enter.
In a February interview, Steve Monahan, director of Vermont’s Workers’ Compensation and Safety Division, said that such a standard is not a staffing requirement but a measure designed to protect firefighters. Other fire departments can provide assistance to meet the requirement.
Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, municipal fire departments can be fined for violations of the standard.
“We only have two full-time fire departments in the region,” Larrabee said. “When we had the three-structure fire in Barre it was all hands on. If something else had come up we wouldn’t have been able to cover it. I don’t know what we would have done.”
Both sides say the time has come to move forward. Mayor John Hollar said it is important for the firefighters to realize that they are deeply appreciated by the city but that budget constraints make it unlikely the department will achieve its former levels of staffing.
“I suspect that there are some bad feelings out there, and I regret that,” said Hollar. “We are going to have to work to regain some level of trust. We have to take a broader view about city finances. The city manager and the fire chief both have felt that they could safely provide protection with one fewer position. The firefighters have a different view of it.”
Larrabee said: “I think that we all need to sit down and make some amends. We should move on from this.”
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