Court rejects firefighters union complaint

May 02, 2006|By ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. ? A complaint by a Martinsburg firefighters union that the city's appointment of its fire chief in 2001 violated both state code and the city's charter was dismissed last week in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

In a 19-page order signed by Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes, the court ruled last Wednesday against Martinsburg Fire Fighters Local 805 International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents the city's paid firefighters. The group's petition, which was filed in May 2004 against city officials, sought Paul Bragg's removal as head of the city's fire department.

The union claimed Bragg, who started work in September 2001, had not submitted to a civil service examination as required by state code, and had been hired over other qualified candidates.

Wilkes ruled that Martinsburg, like all of West Virginia's municipalities, has the right under state code to exempt fire chiefs from civil service provisions, and city officials never had passed an ordinance to place the position under those provisions.


City attorney Claudia Bentley said the city had acted as it always had in hiring Bragg.

"I do think the court's order is pretty clear, and the court has upheld the actions of the City of Martinsburg in the manner it went about hiring Chief Bragg and the manner it went about hiring all of its fire chiefs," Bentley said.

Wilkes agreed, saying fire chiefs prior to Bragg also had been appointed outside the Civil Service Commission.

"Other than the fact that Martinsburg chose someone from outside of the department, nothing was different about the appointment process in 2001 from prior selections," Wilkes wrote. "Previous chiefs did not take a Civil Service exam because Martinsburg has always exempted the Chief position from the Civil Service system."

At the time he was hired from a pool of about 15 candidates, Bragg, a former fire chief in Beckley, W.Va., was employed full time with the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services. He was selected to replace K. Brad Waldeck, who retired from the city's fire department in June 2001 after a 36-year career.

Lawrence Schultz, the attorney for the firefighters union, was unavailable for comment.

According to court documents, the union, citing the city's charter, maintained that as salaried members of the fire department, fire chiefs are not to be appointed by the city council except by the recommendation of the Civil Service Commission.

But Wilkes, noting that specific statutes trump general statutes, said the Martinsburg charter specifies the fire chief as one of a number of positions to be appointed by the council.

"Although the Fire Chief receives a salary, the specific reference to the Fire Chief position (in the charter) supplants the general reference to salaried members (in the charter)," Wilkes wrote.

The Herald-Mail Articles