A recent Kansas Supreme Court decision seemed to put an end, for the time being, to a five-year dispute between the city and its employee bargaining units.
The high court decided to let stand a Kansas Court of Appeals ruling that said the city's work agreements with its employee units were binding contracts.
But now, members of the firefighters union that pressed for the ruling say the city commission can wipe out their long-sought binding contracts simply by changing a resolution.
Four years ago, the court also decided not to hear an appeal in a similar case between the city and one of its employee bargaining groups. In that case, the city won; this time, the firefighters won. The difference? It may have been a 1987 decision by the Lawrence City Commission about who signs work agreements.
And while representatives of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1596 are saying the resolution of the recent legal battle has given both sides what they wanted, they still wonder how it will affect upcoming contract negotiations.
BOB KENT, who was president of the local in 1987, last week was hesitant to discuss possible effects of the suit's outcome.
"I don't know what the city's response will be," he said. "They could call for a rewrite of the resolution."
The resolution is city Resolution No. 5063. It is the document changed by the commission in 1987 and which controls work agreement negotiations.
Firefighters are likely to find out before too long what the outcome will be. Russell Brickell, who now is president of the local, said firefighters will ask by April 15 to open negotiations with the city, as stipulated in the existing work agreement.
"I think right now it is really too early to tell . . . what is going to be included in the agreement," said Ray Hummert, city clerk and the city's chief negotiator in contract talks. "We will have to wait and see what happens."
THE SUPREME Court on Jan. 29 denied the city's request to overturn a ruling binding the city and its employee bargaining units to terms of their negotiated work agreements. That was the firefighters' victory.
The ruling also said multiyear agreements were legal. That was the city's victory.
"This is what they have been working for for a long time," City Manager Mike Wildgen said of the firefighters' quest for binding contracts. "I'm not going to say what it means, though, because I don't know."
At the time Resolution No. 5063 was changed, the city was in negotiations with the firefighters and had just been declared the victor in a legal battle begun by the Lawrence Police Officers Assn. concerning a 1985 wage dispute. The court then said the city's work agreements were not binding contracts.
"We got going because of the decision rendered in that suit," Kent said. "We were in the first year of a two-year agreement, we thought we had a binding agreement and we found out we didn't."
BRICKELL said, "We thought that when we went to the commission to ask for the change it would make the work agreements binding contracts. That's why we did it."
The commission accepted the firefighters' request and unanimously approved changing the resolution to have the mayor sign work agreements, making them binding upon the city commission. Previously, the city manager signed work agreements, meaning they were binding only on the manager.
Kent said some wording changes also were included. "We wanted the language of that resolution straightened out so it made it unambiguously clear," he said.
Milton Allen, who at the time was the city's attorney, predicted the seemingly slight changes would have wide-ranging implications beginning with making the work agreements, which the city regularly enters into with its police and firefighters, binding.
BUT WHEN contract negotiations in 1989 reached impasse, Kent said, firefighters were told the resolution did not guarantee binding contracts.
"We were arguing for a one-year agreement, and that was when (former City Manager Buford) Watson said the agreements were not contracts," Kent recalled. The firefighters later filed the suit which led to the recent decision.
In its motion before the Supreme Court, the city argued unsuccessfully against the appeals court's ruling that the work agreements were binding. The city maintained that it would have to come under the provisions of the Kansas Public Employer-Employee Relations Act to enter into a binding multiyear contract.
"This recent decision just simply looked at the language in (Resolution No.) 5063 and said it was clear to anybody who looked at it without bias that it stipulated binding contracts," Kent said.
ITS MOST important result, Brickell said, would be a simplification of the negotiation process. "We don't have to spend time discussing the nature of the agreement itself, we can concentrate on the terms."
That's a point Hummert agrees with.
But both Brickell and Kent still were unsure what the city's response to the ruling might be.
"If you look at the record of what the commission said in 1987, they weren't opposed to binding contracts," Kent said. "I don't know if that's still the feeling down there. It's a new commission and a new city manager. . . . If they're not happy with the ruling, all they've got to do is put on the agenda that they are going to change the resolution to say agreements aren't binding, hold public hearings and change it."