By John V. Berry, Esq., www.berrylegal.com
In an interesting legal decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals, in Harper Woods Fire Fighters Assoc. v. City of Harper Woods, No. 293062, 08-123054-CZ (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 4, 2011), struck down an attempt by the City of Harper Woods, Michigan to combine their police and fire departments.
The City of approximately 15,000 residents, in Metro Detroit, originally had two separate departments for police and fire responsibilities. This changed in 2008, when the mayor of the City sought to merge the two departments. In May of 2008, the City Council voted to merge the departments and to cross-train police officers and firefighters to serve both roles. The program was apparently initially enacted to save on costs. Eventually issues developed with the proposed program.
In mid-September, 2009, the Firefighters’ union brought suit against the City in regards to the merger and cross-training of police and fire personnel. The union had sought and was granted an injunction against the City regarding the new program because it had violated the City Charter. The City appealed the lower court’s decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals.
THE COURT’S DECISION TO INVALIDATE THE MERGER
The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s action invalidating the merger, evaluating the case as follows:
The City asserts that interpreting Section 4.5 to prohibit its cross-training program would result in harm to the public. The City believes that the overall purpose for public safety services is to serve and protect, and a cross-training program is the most sensible way to accomplish this because it gives more people the skills to help others in emergency situations.
We disagree. Suggesting that not combining the functions of these departments will result in dangerous situations is itself absurd. Having separate departments for fire emergencies and law enforcement may allow both departments to function properly in a majority of situations. The trial court's ruling does not suggest that the police department is prohibited from acting during a fire emergency. The trial court stated that assisting any person in danger during fire emergencies is well within the police department's authority. This ruling allows both the police and fire departments to function properly as separate entities and does not create an absurd result contrary to public policy.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE CASE
This type of case appears to be on the front of an upcoming move by many state and local departments to attempt to save on costs as budgets are stretched. While the case involved the interpretation of a specific city charter, I think that the overall tone of the decision was clear in that the Court of Appeals very much disapproved of the merger of the police and fire functions, referring to the attempt to merge the departments as “an absurd result contrary to public policy.”
We are likely to see other variations of the merger issue come up in the future and I expect additional cases to involve these types of issues until the economy recovers.