In a mediated settlement, the fire district dropped the lawsuit against its union, the union agreed not to use the logo that spurred the suit, and each side will pay its own attorney fees.
The fire district agreed that it committed one labor violation, and the union agreed to drop the remaining claims in an unfair labor practice complaint filed last year.
Also agreed was that Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue and its union, Mid-Columbia Firefighters Association, IASAF Local 1308, will hire a third party to evaluate their relationship. Both parties agree to follow through with reasonable recommendations, subject to available resources.
The fire board sued its union last summer, alleging the union wrongly created a nearly identical-looking logo to the fire district’s, which the district had trademarked. Each party claimed they had created the logo first.
When the district filed the suit, after the union refused to stop using the logo as the district requested, it had asked that the union pay its legal fees.
The fire board met Thursday, Feb. 13, and approved the settlement, which had been reached Monday, Feb. 10.
Both parties released a joint press release, and have agreed not to make any further public comments.
In the release, the parties stated the union and district “agree that the historical means by which the logo was developed and used is no longer disputed by either side. With no admission of fault or wrongdoing, this matter has concluded. As a result of the resolution, there is a permanent injunction that the [union] will no longer use the disputed logos or similar. Each party is responsible for their own attorney fees and costs.”
“The parties have also agreed to engage in a process of evaluation of their relationship and follow through with recommendations that will strengthen their communication and interactions in the future.”
The fire district said in its suit that the similar-looking logo the union had created could cause confusion. The union endorses candidates and supports labor causes, and with the similar-looking logo, the district argued, it could create the misimpression that the fire district itself was the one making endorsements.
The union has to turn over to the district all union logo-emblazoned items, from brochures to pants and shirts to banners and challenge coins. They also have to turn over the means and materials for making the logo.
The parties agreed that, in the development of any future logos, they will give each other the chance to comment on any proposed logo and will avoid adopting logos that might be “confusingly similar.”
The labor violation the district stipulated to occurred when district officials approached a firefighter last year about settling an unfair labor practice complaint, saying the firefighter was “reasonable.” The district thought the firefighter was on the union executive board, but he wasn’t. Settlement discussions can only happen with union executive board members.
The district settled that complaint by paying each of its 18 firefighters $1,000.
Last August, the district provided a written apology for the mistaken contact.
Retired MCFR Division Chief Dan Hammel has called the lawsuit a waste of taxpayer money. He learned last month by filing a public records request that the district had spent over $88,000 through last year on the lawsuit.
In a press release last month, the district said the money to cover the unexpectedly high legal bill would come from contingency funds or by adjusting the ending fund balance.
Hammel said at the meeting, “Don’t lie to the public and say you will either use contingency funds or adjust the ending fund balance. The use of contingency funds only delays the impact, since that line item would be funded back to where it was in next year’s budget. Adjusting the carryover also impacts services by having to potentially borrow money next year to cover your costs between July 1 and the collection of property taxes” later in the fiscal year.
Hammel also said the press release stated it was the board’s decision to pursue litigation. But Hammel said he couldn’t find any record of such a decision in meeting minutes from last year.
“It is my understanding of the public meeting laws that no decision is allowed to be made while in executive session. So when did this board make that decision?”
He said he believed that was a violation of public meeting law and that he’d filed a complaint with the Oregon Ethics Commission.
“It appears that this board has not only wasted a significant amount of our tax dollars, they proceeded with this action under a potential violation of Oregon Revised Statutes,” Hammel said.
He also noted the board said it pursued the litigation on advice of its legal counsel. Hammel said that law firm, Peachey Davies Myers & Dunn, was paid nearly $60,000, or 68 percent of the $88,000 the district had spent through last year on the lawsuit.
“It makes this taxpayer wonder if a conflict of interest isn’t involved,” Hammel said.
After the settlement was announced, Hammel said he applauded the parties for reaching it. He said “the firefighters obviously decided that the public’s safety was a higher priority than keeping their logo.”
He said it was “disheartening” to see that the initiation of the lawsuit “appears to have been conducted in violation” of state public meeting law.
Hammel said that while the monetary loss from the suit has stopped, “the internal relationship damage will continue on for some time. Unfortunately, the mental impact of an employer suing their own employees after a settlement is not something you can just change with a flip of the switch.”
He said the board would have to ensure that recommended changes to improve the relationship are implemented.
He said district and union leadership both need to follow advice from the book “Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win,” which states, “The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes, admit failures, and take ownership of them.”
Casey DePriest, the wife of a retired firefighter, also spoke to the board, saying a settlement was a step in the right direction. “I applaud the board for finding your common sense as it seems to have escaped you for some time.”
She said, “now let’s put this behind us, move forward in a positive manner, restoring trust and respect to this district.”