AUBURN — A judge is expected to rule in January whether an arbitration panel violated state law when it sided with a county workers’ union in allowing members to change the way they protest disciplinary actions and firings.

A lawyer representing the Androscoggin County Commission was seeking Monday to reverse on appeal the opinion of an arbitration panel that had ruled for the union.

County commissioners filed a complaint against the Androscoggin County Employees Association in December in an effort to reverse an arbitration panel’s 2-1 ruling that would allow workers to file grievances and go through arbitration over disciplinary actions, including discharge.

Since 1982, corrections officers and sheriff’s deputies have appealed those actions by going through a governmental appeals procedure to Androscoggin County Superior Court, according to county attorney Bryan Dench. He argued in Androscoggin County Superior Court on Monday that the procedure the union was seeking violated state law despite the arbitration panel’s majority opinion in December favoring the union.

In that decision, the panel reasoned that county workers should be able to “elect which appeal procedure they may use if they disagree with the decision of the commissioners,” according to court papers. “The election of appeal procedure shall be irrevocable and subject to the association’s prior approval when employees elect arbitration.”

In 1981, the county began collective bargaining with a union representing county workers. In the 1982 contract that followed, the parties agreed that union workers’ discipline and discharge matters would be handled by a governmental appeals process and not through the grievance procedure of the collective bargaining agreement or to grievance arbitration.

The union, which has gone without a contract for its 76 members for nearly three years, sought to change that in its recent contract negotiations. It is the only one of Maine’s 16 counties that doesn’t appeal discipline and discharge matters through the grievance procedure of the collective bargaining agreement or grievance arbitration, said John Chapman, who represented the union in court Monday.

“The fact that 15 others do it doesn’t make it lawfully mandated,” Dench countered.

Dench argued that the governmental appeal process worked well for more than 30 years and is the only process to appeal discipline and discharge sanctioned under state law.

Negotiations between the commission and the union for a new contract broke down. The union filed for arbitration last year.

Chapman told Justice Joyce Wheeler on Monday that no other county law enforcement agency that operates on the basis that (governmental appeal in court) is an ‘exclusive’ remedy. Every agency provides some form of arbitration as alternative dispute resolution for discharge and discipline issues, he said.

A 2-1 majority of an arbitration panel ruled in December to change the way discipline and discharge matters are handled, allowing workers to follow the contract grievance procedure with appeal to arbitration.

Justice Wheeler, who admitted to being inexperienced in labor law disputes, said she has presided over hearings on evidence where “someone says, ‘the sky is blue’ and someone else says, ‘no, the sky is black.'”

She continued: “It’s rare that I have lawyers making arguments that are so opposite each other.”

Wheeler said she would need to reread the written arguments from the two parties several more times before ruling on the case because the two attorneys have presented starkly different interpretations of state law.

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