Press-Republican

April 13, 2013

Judge rules against city in fire-chief case

By JOE LoTEMPLIO
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The City of Plattsburgh has lost a lawsuit over the January 2012 exam for fire chief.

State Supreme Court Justice Robert Muller ruled that the city set qualifications for the exam specifically to exclude members of the Plattsburgh City Fire Department.

Muller said an exam with broader qualifications must be scheduled and that the city and Mayor Donald Kasprzak can’t appoint a chief until the new test is given.

The judge also faulted Clinton County Personnel Department Director Alan Gibson for being a party to the “unreasonable qualifications” established for the January 2012 exam.

“They tried to back us into a corner, and it didn’t work,” Plattsburgh Permanent Firefighters union President Terry Feazelle said.

TRAINING AT ISSUE

The judge said that including courses certified by the National Fire Protection Association and Department of Defense as qualifications for the position but excluding New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control-certified courses was “unreasonable ...arbitrary and capricious (and an abuse of discretion.”

Because, as proven at trial, the National Fire Protection Association does not offer courses nor certify course results, the only way to qualify to take the examination based on certified courses was to complete them through the Department of Defense, he noted in his ruling.

City firefighters who wanted to take the exam hold certification from the state; they do not have the federal certification.

“This was an unreasonable restriction on eligibility to take the examination,” the judge’s ruling said.

“Setting qualifications to take the examination, which effectively excluded all members of the Plattsburgh Fire Department, was unreasonable.”

The city and county were permanently enjoined from issuing the results of the January 2012 examination. They must issue new qualifications that include Office of Fire Prevention and Control-certified courses.

AS EXPECTED

Kasprzak declined to comment on the case, deferring to Councilor and Mayor Pro Tem James Calnon (I-Ward 4), who serves on the city’s Public Safety Committee.

Calnon said the city knew last November that it needed to change the qualifications and did so.

“This ruling is not unexpected, and that is why we changed the language for the test in January (2013),” Calnon said.

But Feazelle said firefighters refused to take the test in January of this year because they had not yet received their retroactive pay for 2008 and 2009, awarded by an arbitrator late in 2012.

Calnon said the new language for the test will remain in place, but the next exam will not take place until next January, as per the Civil Service schedule.

NO CHIEF SINCE 2011

The city has been serving without a fire chief since Paul Williams retired in May 2011. Police Chief Desmond Racicot was acting chief until May 2012, and since then, Assistant Fire Chief Randy Stone has been leading the department.

Calnon said the city is seeking a clearer interpretation of the judge’s ruling that a provisional chief cannot be hired in the meantime.

OUTSIDE PERSON

Calnon said the city’s intent when issuing the initial qualifications was to get the best person for the job.

“Our obligation is to protect the lives and property of the city and its residents,” he said.

“Maybe it is better to get someone from outside to be the new chief to get away from the ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ mentality.”

Calnon also said that city firefighters could have had their state training approved by the federal agencies and could have taken the test, but none of them did.

Feazelle said none of the firefighters knew they could get their state certification validated by the feds.

“And the judge ruled that we shouldn’t have to do that anyway because we live in New York state, and state certification should be good enough,” he said.

COUNTY ROLE

As for Gibson’s role, the judge noted that a county personnel officer has all the powers and duties of a municipal Civil Service Commission.

Minimum qualifications for sitting for an examination were within the control of Gibson, the judge noted. While Gibson did not act with malice, “this does not change the conclusion that the qualifications are unreasonable.”

Gibson said the city’s list of qualifications, while not accepting state certifications, did attract a healthy pool of candidates, although he said he was not allowed to say how many.

“My office’s responsibility was to make sure the qualifications were accurate and measured what needed to be measured, and we felt that they did,” Gibson said.

“It was not our role to see if anyone is trying to eliminate someone from applying.”

DISCRIMINATION

Feazelle said the judge obviously disagreed with Gibson and the city.

“We absolutely feel this was right and worth it,” Feazelle said. “If you let people discriminate against you, where does it stop?”

Email Joe LoTemplio:

jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com