Parkersburg mayor, police chief want out of FOP lawsuit

By Lawrence Smith | May 25, 2012

PARKERSBURG – The city of Parkersburg's mayor and police chief say a lawsuit filed against them by a local Fraternal Order of Police lodge is politically motivated.

Robert Newell and Joseph Martin were named as co-defendants in a breach of contract suit filed May 3 by FOP Blennerhasset Lodge 79. In the suit, Chris Morehead, a Parkersburg Police officer, and the Lodge's president, alleges the city, which is also named as a co-defendant, Newell and Martin, failed to honor its commitment to increase city officers' longevity pay.

Morehead asks the suit be given class-action status to include all FOP members who are with PPD.

However, Newell, and Martin want to distance themselves from it. In a motion to dismiss filed four days later, they address some the factual allegations raised, but say the suit lacks credibility because it was filed with the intention to embarrass them in advance of the May 8 primary election in hopes of sabotaging their political careers.

Longevity and overtime pay at issue

According to the suit, the current contract between the police and city began on July 1, 2008. During the negotiations that led to it, officers "agreed to give up certain previously enjoyed employment benefits including, but not limited to, minimum time for court time in exchange for the longevity increases and the overtime rates."

Beginning July 1, 2008, any officer was to receive a "$.30 per hour [increase] for every year of completed service." The increases were to be paid on the anniversary of his or her hire date.

In the suit, Morehead alleges he and 62 other PPD officers were denied both their longevity increases as well as overtime pay beginning in July 2010. The overtime rate was negotiated at the rate sets by the Fair Labor Standards Act at time and a-half per hour above 40 hours.

The suit makes a total of eight claims against the city, Newell and Martin including breach of contract, violation of the state Wage Payment and Collection Act and constitutional due process. Along with the wages and overtime due them, Morehead and his fellow PPD officers seek punitive damages, court costs, attorneys fees and interest.

They are represented by John E. Triplett, Jr. with the Marietta, Ohio law firm of Theisen Brock.

A political billy club

In their motion, Newell says that he "has never possessed the authority to approve a budge for the Parkersburg Police officers...enter into a wage agreement with members of the FOP or members of the Parkersburg Police Department ... [or] approve longevity pay increases." Though he has "requested pay increases for the City of Parkersburg officers repeatedly during his tenure," Martin says his role as police chief regarding PPD's budget "is limited to making recommendations" to Newell and the city council.

Also, Newell and Martin say any blame for reneging on the contract should be directed at the city as the council passed an ordinance last April suspending for a year any longevity pay. The suspension, which still remains in effect, was done to plug a $1 million hole in the city's budget due to loss of revenue from St. Joseph's Hospital's merger with Camden-Clark Memorial Hospital, and a 6.5 percent increase in Public Employee Retirement System contribution.

However, the main reason Newell and Martin say they should be dismissed from the suit as it was filed to further a political agenda.

According to Newell and Martin, Morehead and Triplett in March made unsuccessful attempts to get the backing of all 170 FOP members to file the suit. When these efforts failed, the lodge appointed a three-person committee "to examine the issues concerning the wages."

Between then and May 1, Newell and Martin allege, the three members "never met as a committee and never reported back to the FOP regarding any recommendations concerning the FOP's involvement in the lawsuit." During a regularly scheduled lodge meeting May 2, "[t]here was no mention of the lawsuit being filed."

The day after the suit was filed, Morehead gave an interview in which he was quoted as saying "the entire body of the FOP had voted to proceed with the lawsuit with overwhelming support." That is a "false, malicious, vengeful and misleading statement," Newell and Martin say, as the next day an impromptu lodge meeting was held in which 22 of the unspecified number of members present "voted to go forward with the litigation."

In the suit, Martin avers that he received no notice of the impromptu meeting.

The timing of the suit, Newell and Martin say, is not coincidental. It "is an unethical and illegal abuse of the civil process to attempt to accomplish the goal of influencing the primary election for Mayor of Parkersburg."

In the Democratic primary, Newell faced Gerald Board, who served as chief of police in Newell's first administration from 2006 until 2009. Newell won by less than a 100-vote margin, 1,364 to 1,265.

In November's general election, he faces Sharyn Tallman, a three-term councilwoman.

Along with asking they be dismissed from the suit, Newell and Martin, who was appointed police chief in November 2009, ask that Morehead and Triplett reimburse them for their legal fees and expenses "for this intentionally malicious complaint being filed." They are represented by former Wood County Prosecutor Ginny A. Conley.

As of presstime, a hearing on Newell's and Martin's motion to dismiss was not yet scheduled. The city has yet to file its answer to the suit.

The case is assigned to Judge Jeffrey B. Reed.

Wood Circuit Court case number 12-C-188

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