SANTA PAULA, CA – The City Council learned at the December 21 meeting that Santa Paula settled a lawsuit with its own firefighters over the city’s attempt to fill vacant shifts with Reserves, a decision that reaffirmed the existing policy and brought bitter comment from a councilman.
Santa Paula’s full-time firefighters are represented by the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Association, which filed a lawsuit against the city in March in Ventura County Superior Court. The issue had surfaced in September 2014 but a union official said talks with the city failed.
The lawsuit alleged the city breached its own contract with the union by backfilling vacant positions with reserve firefighters instead of union members, a move that went against standing policy. Under the previous agreement between the city and union, SPFD is supposed to fill vacant shifts with fire personnel of the same rank of those being replaced, captain, engineer and firefighter.
Reserves firefighters can only be called to fill in on an emergency basis when no full-time firefighters can be found to fill a vacant shift.
City Attorney John Cotti told the council that the settlement “fully and finally resolves the lawsuit” with the city entitled to use Reserves only if full-time firefighters cannot be found to fill the shift.
City Councilman Jim Tovias noted that Cotti’s report stated that there was no monetary outlay in the settlement and asked and learned that the city’s legal costs had been $38,000.
Tovias said he was “really disappointed we were sued by our own fire department…this council and the council before have pretty much bent over backward,” to help the department including the purchase of a new fire engine and bridging the federal SAFER grant using General Funds.
“We’re not in a position where we have an extra $38,000 to throw away at things like this,” an issue that Tovias said should have been handled administratively.
“I would like for the record to state that the legal fees when we were sued by own fire department were $38,000,” he added.
Chris Mahon, president of the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Association said although pleased the issue has been resolved it never should have occurred.
In a telephone interview the day following the meeting Mahon said the union unsuccessfully tried to handle the matter administratively before filing the lawsuit and waited until the deadline to do so.
He said Tovias’ remarks were “disingenuous” as the situation was “created by city management and the city manager…we tried all along to settle the issue administratively and we were very surprised when the city would not do that and forced us to the final step, which was the lawsuit.”
A lawsuit, he added, “To get them to comply with a long standing provision in the contract,” that started with a grievance that ballooned.
Mahon said unlike other cities or counties Santa Paula lacks “another step, a civil service commission or another third party review…in Santa Paula the only other option is to go to court. And when it was denied at the final step we were mystified.”
Mahon said especially mystifying was “why they did this over something that was very clear and obvious…but they forced our hand,” after the union went through the first three steps of the grievance process that started in September 2014.
“We waited until the last minute,” to file the lawsuit in March 2015, “in the hopes of getting it resolved…we had really hoped for a resolution that would not have required that and one that from out standpoint made no sense at all.”
The dispute, one that Mahon said was not only a contract violation but also brought up safety concerns, was “ultimately resolved, which we hoped and want to be amicably…unfortunately, Councilman Tovias’ comment indicates otherwise. We don’t think it’s reflective of the entire council…we think he is one lone voice.”