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COA rules on fire department consolidation demotions

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Ruling on a case about fire department consolidation in Indianapolis, the state’s second highest appellate court has given police and fire merit commissions the same power as related safety and disciplinary boards as to how far they can go in restructuring police and fire positions.

The court issued a decision in Jeff Castetter, Tony Jones, David Strode and Matthew Hickey v. Lawrence Township, No. 49A05-1105-PL-249, arising out of a Marion Superior Court action involving the mid-2010 discussion in Lawrence Township of merging the township fire department with the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Before any merger could happen, the Lawrence department had to adjust its officer ranks because Indianapolis was only willing to accept a certain number of captains and lieutenants in the merger and no battalion chiefs. At the time, Lawrence Township had 10 of those battalion chiefs and the township fire department’s merit commission was tasked with modifying those ranks to conform with the proposed merger structure. At a public meeting in July 2010, the commission announced that a previous April 2007 rule amendment didn’t comply with the state statutes on public notice and comment, and therefore was rescinded. That meant the township had no merit battalion chiefs and anyone promoted under those “invalid provisions” adopted in 2007 would be reverted to their previous rank.

At the same July 2010 meeting, the commission turned to the merger and determined the township could no longer afford the local fire department and decided to restructure the officer ranks in order to move forward with a merger – which happened Jan. 1, 2011. None of the appellants in this case retained their positions, and they appealed the commission’s decision on grounds that the action was illegal, arbitrary, capricious and invalid.

Both sides filed summary judgment motions and the trial court granted the Lawrence Township motion, leading to this appeal about merger demotions.

In Indiana, the merit commission discipline statute of Indiana Code 36-8-3 dictates how those panels must handle notice and hearings before any suspensions, demotions or dismissals can happen. None of those statutorily required procedures took place here. Lawrence Township argued it wasn’t bound by those rules because the officers were demoted for economic reasons and fell under an “economic exception” to the disciplinary statute.

State courts going back to 1918 recognized an exception to the necessity of due process procedures required in police and firefighter discipline, and that exception has to do with whether the personnel action is considered “person-directed” or “position-directed.”

The court has determined those statutory requirements apply to the person-directed action before any termination or discipline can occur, but those protections do not apply to the more general position-specific changes as happened in this Lawrence Township Fire Department case.

“Although (past holdings) … concern the notice and hearing provisions of IC 36-8-3-4, which is the discipline statute applicable to safety boards, we hold that this exception extends to merit commissions as well,” Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote.

The appellate panel found the trial court didn’t err in granting Lawrence Township’s motion for summary judgment, and that the position-directed decisions were made in good faith and not for the purpose of demoting the appellants for cause, politics or any other reason.

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