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Northampton, firefighters may settle lawsuit; contract negotiations head to arbitration this week

— The City Council will meet in executive session Thursday to discuss and perhaps settle a lawsuit brought 10 months ago by Northampton firefighters over the alleged nonpayment of raises.

Meanwhile, in a separate matter, the city and Northampton Firefighters Local 108 are set to air their differences over stalled contract negotiations before a state arbitration panel. That hearing is also slated for Thursday in Northampton.

Mayor David J. Narkewicz said Monday that he will brief the council on the lawsuit during the executive session, which also will include discussion of litigation strategy. The lawsuit was filed last February in Hampshire Superior Court by three firefighters, including union president Michael Hatch, over raises they say are owed to the department’s newest members.

The closed-door meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the hearing room at City Hall. The session is being held just before the council’s first public meeting of 2013, scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers of the Puchalski Municipal Building. At that regular meeting, the council will be asked to appropriate $45,000 to fund a proposed settlement of the lawsuit, Narkewicz said.

He declined to discuss the potential settlement or the lawsuit in detail, other than what is stated on the executive session agenda. The agenda states that having such a discussion in public may have a detrimental effect on the city’s position.

“At this point, because it’s still a pending matter, I have to let the agenda speak for itself,” he said.

Any settlement is subject to council and court approval.

The lawsuit contends the city is obligated to pay the raises, known as step increases, to firefighters and captains as they gain seniority and experience through the first eight years of service.

The raises were scheduled to begin at the start of fiscal 2012, or July 1, 2011. The city and then-Mayor Clare Higgins, however, froze the raises. The firefighters claim in their lawsuit that the city’s actions violate the collective bargaining agreement between the two sides.

The suit asks the city to pay triple the back wages owed to each member, as well as interest and attorney’s fees.

In addition to the city, Narkewicz and Fire Chief Brian Duggan are named as defendants. Named plaintiffs in addition to Hatch are city firefighters Matthew Marchand and Natalie Stollmeyer. Meanwhile, the long-awaited arbitration hearing between the city and Local 108 is scheduled for Thursday before the Joint Labor-Management Committee for Municipal Police and Fire.

The three-member committee will hear arguments from both sides during the daylong hearing, though the independent panel is not expected to render any decisions. The committee is headed by a neutral arbitrator and includes representatives from management and unions.

Firefighters have been working under an old contract, which expired June 30, 2010.

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