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The closely watched case of 28 Chicago Fire Department firefighters disciplined for drinking, using racial slurs, and other boorish behavior during a firehouse party returns to an arbitrator following a recent ruling by a state appellate court. In a unanimous decision released Aug. 11, a three-member panel of justices with the Illinois Appellate Court’s First District said that issues of protecting the public’s safety and welfare outweigh any merely procedural or due process issues the arbitrator may have relied upon in reinstating the 28 public servants two years ago. In all, seven firefighters were fired by the City of Chicago and remain off its fire department. Another 21 were given suspensions of between 6 to 60 days that have already been served. In 1998, an arbitrator had ruled that all should receive back pay and benefits for time away from department, particularly in light of the city’s failure to take action against the firemen for months. Writing for the panel, Justice Calvin C. Campbell said that by basing his 1998 decision on procedural grounds and not considering the merits of the allegations, the arbitrator ignored the seriousness of any “possible lack of readiness” by the firefighters who were on call at the time of the party. Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2 v. City of Chicago, No. 1-99-2647. “It cannot be doubted that firefighters who are ill-equipped to adequately perform their ascribed duties as the result of a state of intoxication including, but not limited to the operation of any kind of vehicle, may have a substantial, detrimental impact on the health and safety of the citizens of the City of Chicago,” Campbell wrote. Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, said that barring an appeal by Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local No. 2 to the Illinois Supreme Court, the case returns to the arbitrator. There, she notes, the city finally gets its chance to show that “certain people committed certain acts.” “The main thing is we are passed the question of timeliness,” Hoyle said. “We are confident we can show the disciplinary action was appropriate.” As of Aug. 1, the back pay eligible for the seven firefighters was just over $947,000, Hoyle added. The case started in 1997 when an investigator with the fire department’s Internal Affairs Division viewed a videotape of the party and notified a superior about it. The superior, however, did not start an investigation into the alleged improper activity at the party until six months later — and after learning a television news station also had a copy of the tape. That time lag became the basis for the arbitrator’s decision in December 1998 to invalidate the disciplinary action taken against the group of firefighters earlier in the year. The decision was later upheld in Cook County Circuit Court and the city appealed. The arbitrator’s order also found that steps had been taken to prevent similar conduct by fire department employees in the future, a decision that the appellate justices pointedly took issue with. “The arbitrator merely concluded, based on his own assumptions, that the firefighters would fail to engage in any offensive activities in the future,” Campbell wrote. “The arbitrator held no hearing whatsoever on the merits of the alleged infractions committed by the 28 firefighters, and failed to consider any evidence that the firefighters took responsibility in any way for the conduct they engaged in and the charges leveled against them.” Presiding Justice Morton Zwick and Justice Robert Chapman Buckley joined in the opinion.

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