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Government, Politics & Issues

Appeals court says length of Monarch fire district's contract with union is OK

Rescue crews from the Monarch Fire Protection District work at the scene of a motor vehicle accident on May 3, 2016.
Monarch Fire Protection District | Facebook

Updated July 26, 2016 with appeals court ruling. — A Missouri appeals court says firefighters in the Monarch Fire Protection District can continue working under their old contract while negotiating a new one.

Tuesday's ruling upholds an "evergreen" clause that says the current contract, negotiated in 2013, remains in effect as long as good faith negotiations are going on between the board and the union. The district provides fire and ambulance service for parts of west St. Louis County.

An attorney for the firefighters said the decision allows the union and the district to get back to the bargaining table. The district's attorney did not return a call for comment.

Our original story, May 3, 2016 — In 2011, the members of the Monarch Fire Protection District board and representatives from the International Association of Firefighters Local 2655 sat down and negotiated a three-year contract that would expire in December 2013. It included the following "evergreen" clause: "This agreement shall remain in effect during good faith negotiations, and shall continue to remain in full force and effect until until such time as a new agreement is agreed upon." 

By 2013, when the terms were set to expire, the make-up of the board had become more anti-union. Its members sued, saying that evergreen clause improperly binds the board into a contract with no end date. A previous legislative body, the board argued, cannot force a new legislative body to agree to a contract it didn't sign. A St. Louis County judge said it was wrong.

The sides presented their arguments Tuesday to judges Robert Clayton, Lawrence Mooney and James Dowd.

"What is offensive here is that the fire protection district gave away its ability to enact a new contract unless the union says yes," said Bob Stewart, who argued the case for Monarch. "It's delegation squared."

"Under [Monarch's] theory, there is no true right to bargain," said Sarah Faulman, an attorney for the union. "It undermines the stability of the contract, that no matter what they negotiate, a new board can terminate it for any reason."

At the center of the dispute is a Missouri law requiring that the results of negotiations between the union and a public body like the district board be "reduced to writing and be presented to the appropriate administrative, legislative or other governing body in the form of an ordinance, resolution, bill or other form required for adoption, modification or rejection." Because the evergreen clause requires the union to agree to any deal, the Monarch board argues, the union is essentially given veto power over a legislative body.

Mooney wasn't convinced. 

"It is passing an ordinance, but it's not a law of general applicability," he said. "It seems to me to be more of an administrative authority, rather than legislative." He and the other judges asked the attorneys to provide additional information on that question.

Mooney, by far the most active questioner on the panel, said he thought the evergreen clause was poorly written. There are two separate sections, he said — one that says the agreement is in effect while good faith negotiations are under way, and another that says it remains in effect until a new agreement is reached.

"The problem is it's not comparing apples and oranges," he said. "It's more like navel oranges and oranges generally. One swallows the other."

It's not immediately clear what will happen if the appeals court overturns St. Louis County Judge Joseph Walsh's opinion upholding the evergreen clause. Faulman, the attorney for the union, said Missouri law does not allow the fire protection district to instantly implement a new contract. Though negotiations are slow, she said, they're still underway. The board would first have to declare an impasse, she said, and make a last, best and final offer. The union could always challenge whether there is an impasse.

"Sounds like the parties may face years of litigation," Mooney said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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