JAMESTOWN, NY – With the city of Jamestown in the process of challenging a recent arbitration decision involving a contract with its police union, there’s been some confusion in the community regarding the arbitration process and how it works when it comes to dealing with contracts with municipal police and fire unions.
While it’s true the statute in the State’s Civil Service Law (Taylor Law) Section 209 involving the arbitration process refers to the award decision of an arbitration panel as “final and binding,” that doesn’t mean the determination can’t be challenged in a court of law.
In addition, the actual term used to describe the onset of the arbitration process is “Compulsory Interest Arbitration.” It is given this term because if one of the two parties determines contract negotiations are at an impasse and beyond the point of mediation, then it can request the state Public Relations Employment Board (PERB) refer the dispute to an arbitration panel, regardless of whether or not the other party also agrees with moving forward with arbitration (Section 209-4(c)(i)). As a result, the party that didn’t initiate the arbitration is still required, or “compulsed,” to participate.
An arbitration panel is a three-member panel made up of one representative from each of the two sides involved in the contract negotiations, along with a third, independent party appointed by PERB. Once the arbitration panel has been created and hears all the required and necessary testimony and arguments involving the contract dispute, in then will make a determination and award a decision, which is “final and binding” (Section 209-4(c)(vi)) on the parties. The term “final and binding” in this case means that neither party is required to vote to give final ratification to the decision and that once in place can not be changed or altered without the consent from both parties.
There is also a process in place to legally challenge the Compulsory Interest Arbitration process. If either party disagrees with the arbitration panel’s award decision, the Taylor Law clearly states that decision shall be subject to review by an appropriate court of law (Section 209-4(c)(vii)).
In the case involving the city of Jamestown and the Kendall Club Police Benevolent Association‘s 2016-17 labor contract, it was the union that requested in early 2018 that the contract dispute move into the arbitration phase after it felt the two sides were at an impasse, mostly due to the union seeking a 5 percent salary increase while the city didn’t want to offer any increase. As a result of that request by the union, the city was “compulsed” to also participate.
The arbitration panel delivered its decision in October 2018 and it settled on a 2 percent increase for the union, along with other provisions as well. That decision was “final and binding” only if neither side opted to call for for a judicial review. However, the Jamestown City Council voted in November to exercise the city’s right to call for that review, saying the award violated the 70-percent weighting factor statute that is required to be used when dealing with a fiscally eligible municipality’s ability to pay (Section 209-6(e)). As a result, the matter is being taken up in State Supreme Court.
When the city council voted to call for the review of the decision, Councilman Andrew Liuzzo (R-At Large) voted against it. He later explained his vote to WRFA.
“If you’re going to agree to binding arbitration, it seems to me the word ‘binding’ – that’s what you agreed to. So whether you like it or not, we agreed to binding arbitration. To send that to litigation, I think is a waste of funds” Liuzzo said.
While it’s well within Liuzzo’s right to be against the challenge based on the cost associated with the legal process (the council voted to spend $25,000 on attorney fees on the arbitration challenge and which Liuzzo also voted against), it appears he is unaware that the city was actually compulsed under state law to participate in the initial arbitration process, rather than voluntarily agreeing to enter into it.
In addition to councilman Liuzzo, some members of the community have spoken out against the arbitration challenge.
“Binding arbitration means just that,” wrote one local resident on our Facebook page after we ran a story on the arbitration challenge. “It was proven there was money on the books to pay, but rather than accept it the politicians chose to flex a muscle they did not have.”
Arguments in the arbitration challenge will be made in Chautauqua County State Supreme Court on Monday, March 18. The Kendall Club is being represented by legal counsel from Fessenden, Laumer & De Angelo while the city will be represented by Bond, Schoeneck & King.