Arbitrator John Barnard ruled this month that then-Fire Chief Ross Chadwick’s appointment of Fire Marshal Laura Behrens last year did properly fall in the guidelines of the association’s meet-and-confer agreement.
In a grievance letter addressed to the city on Sept. 6, 2013, Jason Ballard, president of the Denton Fire Fighters Association, challenged the appointment, saying the department head had “appointed an unclassified civilian into the vacant fire marshal position.”
In the letter, the association asked that Behrens be removed from the position and that the department follow the hiring process specified in its written agreement with the association.
Ballard said last week that the association was notified Tuesday of the decision, which was several months in the making.
After their grievance was denied by Chadwick and the city manager, Ballard said they then went to mediation.
When that didn’t work out, both sides took part in a two-day arbitration hearing in May at City Hall, where the association continued to make sure its meet-and-confer agreement with the city was properly enforced, Ballard said.
The firefighters association has an agreement with the city to meet and confer each year to negotiate matters that affect the rank and file.
At the May hearing, Chadwick testified that he had received many compliments on Behrens since her appointment, and said she was the best qualified of the eight candidates considered.
The association testified that Behrens was an “unclassified civilian” whose appointment violated the meet-and-confer agreement that the association has held with the city of Denton since 2006.
In addition, the city alleged the association wasn’t “timely” in filing its grievance.
According to documentation from the dispute, the city claimed the grievance must be filed within 30 days of knowledge and said Ballard was notified on July 31, 2013 that Behrens was one of the candidates being interviewed for the fire marshal vacancy.
Barnard ruled in his report that the grievance was timely because “a grievance is not a grievance until the violation and hence harm actually occurs. Here, the grievance occurred when the chief appointed Behrens.”
Behrens was hired Aug. 31, 2013. Before her appointment, she worked in administration and as a public education officer in fire prevention at the department.
On the issue of Behrens’ appointment, Barnard stated the term “department” or “fire department” means the Denton Fire Department — meaning that Behrens fell within the boundaries of an internal candidate because she was working at the department at the time of her appointment.
“I am disappointed in the ruling and I still believe that then-Fire Chief Ross Chadwick violated the intent of the language in the contract in filling the position,” Ballard said Thursday. “The ruling is binding and I am prepared to accept that and move forward.”
Ballard said the city and the association will split the nearly $9,000 in fees for the arbitration. That fee does not include how much the city spent in using outside attorneys.
Ballard said that the association’s attorney fees were covered by the group’s state association.
Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune said Friday via email that the city is pleased with the outcome of the arbitration.
“Mrs. Behrens is an excellent fire marshal and we are happy to receive confirmation that the chief's appointment of her was done in accordance with the city’s meet-and-confer agreement.”
Fortune and Ballard each said they are looking forward to continue their working relationship between the city and association.
Ballard said he does not expect to appeal the decision to keep Behrens and is just ready to move forward.
“It never had anything to do with her — it had to do with the way the hiring process between the city and the association was handled,” Ballard said.
MEGAN GRAY-HATFIELD can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.