Firefighters threaten to sue county

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By Carol A. Clark

A battle brewing between Los Alamos County and the Los Alamos Fire Department’s union for nearly two years is about to spill into the courtroom.

“Even in the face of a third party fact-finder’s report strongly favoring the union, Los Alamos County Council refuses to negotiate in good faith,” said President Flavio Martinez, Los Alamos Firefighters’ Association Local 3279. “We feel it’s incredibly important for everyone to know the facts and history of our battle with Los Alamos County – their actions are a slap in the face to good-faith collective bargaining in the State of New Mexico.”

Assistant County Attorney Dan Gonzalez declined comment noting that there is an agreement that prohibits him from commenting on the case.

“I’m bound by the terms of the agreement during this impasse procedure not to comment…the way I read it…we will not comment unless we agree to issue a joint statement,” Gonzalez said late Tuesday.

Fire Chief Doug Tucker also cited the agreement in declining to discuss the matter.

Union officials said that issues include working conditions and remaining competitive with other fire departments in New Mexico.

LAFD provides fire protection to Los Alamos National Laboratory through a cooperative agreement with the National Nuclear Security Administration.

“The issue between the firefighters and the county is not our issue,” said spokesperson Toni Chiri, NNSA Site Office. “I can say we are pleased with the performance of the firefighters and pleased about our relationship with the county but that is not our issue so I can’t comment on it.”

At its Aug. 5 meeting, county council rejected the ruling of an independent arbitrator appointed by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which ruled in favor of the Los Alamos Firefighters’ Association IAFF Local 3279 in its ongoing contract negotiations.

“This is the second time in eight years that an independent fact-finder has ruled against the County of Los Alamos,” Martinez said. “The unions’ rank-and-file find the Los Alamos County Council’s decision to be unwarranted given the independent ruling and we promise to take this issue to court.”

On July 20, fact-finder Bruce Ponder issued his determination favoring the unions’ last best offer regarding economic and non-economic recommendations.

“Based on my findings...I find the unions’ offer to be the more reasonable,” Ponder stated in his report.

Ponder based his decision on evidence provided by the county’s contracted consultants including Vincent Yermal, a former county employee serving as a consultant regarding compensation and job classification and Robert Brown, a labor relations consultant.

“The county wants to paint this as a money thing, it’s not about money, it’s about having the county treat us in accordance with the Public Employees Bargaining Act,” Martinez said. “PEBA covers good faith bargaining, it’s not just economical, it’s about working conditions and staying competitive with other fire departments in the state.”

Martinez said he hopes to address the issue one more time at Tuesday’s county council meeting.

“In the end we’re looking to have a contract,” Martinez said. “If they’re not willing to accept the fact-finder’s report then we have no choice but to go to court.”