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Crook County firefighters union wins unfair labor practice claim

Fire district's attorney says relations already have improved

PRINEVILLE, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The Oregon Employee Relations Board has unanimously found that the Crook County Fire & Rescue District and its fire chief violated state labor laws governing unfair labor practices.

The decision followed a long-standing complaint filed in April 2018 by Crook County Firefighters Association, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 5115 against Crook County Fire & Rescue. 

The firefighters say Fire Chief Matt Smith discouraged employees from forming a union. The Employee Relations Board found the agency violated the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Agreement, which PECBA says public employees have the right to form labor organizations.

In its final order Thursday, the board found CCFR interfered with the employees’ rights.

In a news release announcing the order, the firefighters' union said, "Chief Smith has shown a consistent disregard for his obligations under the law and this … final order is just the latest example of his unwillingness to comply with his obligations and learn from his mistakes. "

"We sincerely hope that the Fire Board reads the ERB’s final order in conjunction with the vote of no confidence (in Smith) taken by the firefighters (last April) and takes appropriate actions to restore integrity and accountability to the leadership at the Fire District," it said.

Under PECBA, ORS 243.662, “Public employees have the right to form, join and participate in the activities of labor organizations of their own choosing for the purpose of representation and collective bargaining with their public employer on matters concerning employment relations.” 

In its order, the ERB directed the fire district to cease and desist from violating the unfair labor practice law and to expunge the "instructive supervisory notes" issued to two firefighters following third-party investigations, including any reference to the notes in other personnel records. It noted the fire district had offered to do so in its objections to the proposed order.

"We decline to order, as the association requests, that the district expunge all instructive supervisory notes," the ruling stated. "Under the circumstances of this case, the effects of the district’s conduct are better remedied by ordering the district to post a notice of its wrongdoing."

Saying "the district's conduct affected a significant number of bargaining unit employees," the board ordered the fire district to post its notice for 30 days in places where association-represented employees work and to distribute the notice by email to all association-represented employees within 10 days.

However, the board declined to order a civil penalty, as the union also requested, saying the record did not establish that the district's violation was "egregious" or that the unfair labor practice was done repetitively, with knowledge that it violated the law.

Asked by NewsChannel 21 for a comment on the order, Smith instead provided a statement from the fire district’s attorney, Steven Schuback, who said the agency will follow the board’s directions.

“We appreciate the board’s review and will follow the award as directed," Schuback said. "We believe both parties have improved relations and have moved towards focusing on the growth of the district and enhanced services to the public.”   

A recommended order in the matter was issued in March by an administrative law judge -- but eight days later, the judge disclosed that she had accepted, the day after her ruling, a job offer by the law firm representing the association.

The fire district objected to the recommended order and, in late April, the Employment Relations Board granted the fire district's motion to set aside the recommended order and decided to conduct a de novo review of the existing record and make its own ruling, without reference to the earlier decision.

The fire district instead asked the board to dismiss the case without addressing the merits of the union's claims, but the ERB declined to do so and instead issued a final ruling, which can be appealed to the state Court of Appeals.

Crook County

Rhea Panela

Rhea Panela is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Rhea here.

Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.

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