ATLANTIC CITY — The city's firefighter union and state officials agreed Tuesday to continue to negotiate upcoming captain promotions in the face of potential court intervention.
Judge John C. Porto said in court that he has stayed the department's promotions and tasked the two parties to meet regularly before returning May 15 and come up with an agreed promotion process.
"What I would like to do is see what we can do to put everything aside, wrap everything up and get things moving because it is the city, the people of the city that ultimately are one of the beneficiaries of the firefighters," Porto said.
If the parties can't agree, Porto said the court may have to outline its own promotional procedure subject to appellate and possible state Supreme Court review, a move Porto said he does not believe is the court's place.
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“I may have to act. I don’t want to do that, but I need to know that there’s enough attention being made," Porto said.
The two parties will meet again Thursday and schedule two more dates for negotiations.
Representatives for the city were not in court Tuesday. Attorney for the state, which oversees the city's finances and operations, did not wish to comment.
“I think today was definitely fair," said John Varallo Jr., president of the firefighter union. "I think it gives us an opportunity to get back into the rooms and try to work these issues out."
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198 filed an initial complaint March 4 after the state allowed the Civil Service Promotional List to expire Jan. 6. It alleges the state did not implement a traditional method afterward for assigning captain promotions.
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Instead of using the promotion list, the state held interviews with all firefighters for captain promotions, using procedures and criteria that were unknown to the union.
The Fire Department has not promoted captains in five years. The union argued a standardized, transparent system should be in place first.
Attorneys for the state argued they have acted in good faith in previous negotiations and that the ability to move forward with a final proposal is within its powers under the 2016 Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act.
During the court proceedings, as multiple firefighters from the department sat in attendance, Porto asked the union whether they could use a previous ruling Judge Julio Mendez gave for other firefighter positions.
The union said this could be a place to start but argued that the facts in the case for captains are different, specifically because there is an expired promotional list.
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"Parties are going to have to grapple with this new reality of not having Civil Service in the background, sorting out and ranking candidates," said union attorney Mark E. Belland. "How many being done? Are there tests being given? Are there oral interviews? How many are allowed to apply? Are there appeal procedures?"
Both parties expressed a willingness to continue to negotiate the promotions. State attorneys said in court that interviews have been completed, but that the promotion process is still ongoing.
"There’s definitely a path to get some of these issues resolved," Varallo said. "I still have faith in the negotiations. I still pray that the state is willing to do the right thing here.”