Arbitrator backs firefighters; Union challenged Finkbeiner’s order to inspect city hydrants

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 14

When Mayor Carty Finkbeiner ordered firefighters to inspect the city’s hydrants – a job the water department had done for decades – he violated the workers’ collective bargaining agreement.

That is the “inescapable conclusion” of Harry Graham, the Solon, O., arbitrator who sided yesterday with the firefighters’ union, the International Association of Firefighters Local 92, in their grievance against the city.

Mr. Graham ordered the city to stop making hydrant inspection the job of firefighters, a move Local 92’s attorney applauded.

“The mayor painted himself into a corner,” Donato Iorio said. “`To save face in an election year, he decided to drop it off on Local 92.”

A Blade special report in April, 1997, exposed the fact that hundreds of hydrants around the city were broken or in need of repair – in part because a hiring freeze in the city water depart ment had cut inspections to the point that most hydrants were being examined only once every three years.

After The Blade’s report, Mr. Finkbeiner announced that firefighters would begin inspecting the hydrants instead of water department workers.

In the arbitrator’s report, a fire department administrator said the move was “solely due to media attention to the problem.”

Mr. Graham found that the water department workers had historically done a more thorough job of inspecting the city’s 10,000 hydrants than the firefighters were being asked to do, and said that the additional work would qualify as a “great expansion of the duties of firefighters.” Union officials had said the added tasks could take up the bulk of a firefighter’s time for half of every year.

The city, in contrast, argued that the firefighters were not being asked to perform any maintenance work, and said that inspections of other facilities were a regular part of their duties.

Mr. Graham concluded that the changes were significant enough that they had to be negotiated into a contract to be acceptable.

He accused the city of “duping” firefighters by not raising the issue during regular contract negotiations last year.

“The fact of the matter is that the City has unilaterally altered a longstanding, constant, unaltered, feature of the tasks performed by IAFF Local 92 members,” the report stated. “Absent negotiations, it may not do so.”

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 7, the union representing water department workers, has filed a separate grievance protesting the reassignment of work they had historically performed. That grievance is still pending in arbitration.

“We didn’t want to take the work away from our other unions,” Mr. Iorio said.

Mr. Finkbeiner, who said he has not seen the report, declined comment last night.