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Lawsuit expected as Morgantown Council creates police review board

MORGANTOWN — Attorney Teresa Toriseva, representing the Mon-Preston Fraternal Order of Police, told The Dominion Post that she will file a lawsuit today in response to Morgantown City Council’s vote to create a civilian police review and advisory board.

Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to adopt the ordinance enabling the creation of the body after more than 10 months of discussion and public meetings.

While a lot of the points found most objectionable by Toriseva and the FOP were pulled before the issue got to council on May 4 — namely the ability to investigate and hold hearings — the Wheeling-based attorney has said the board still falls foul of state code because the decisions of the police chief regarding complaints of possible misconduct are shared with the body before being finalized.

That, she  explained, interferes with the police civil service commission process, which is the only process provided for in state code to address matters that may result in punitive action against a police officer.

During Tuesday’s meeting, retired attorney and Morgantown/Kingwood NAACP member Bob Cohen reiterated his belief that Toriseva’s interpretation is flawed as the civil service process doesn’t kick in until after the police  chief has taken action.

Further, Cohen said. Morgantown Police Chief Eric Powell’s stated concerns over previous versions of the law were critical in its creation.

“What is at issue here is the question of who runs the Morgantown Police Department – the chief or the FOP and Ms. Toriseva,” Cohen said. “Chief Powell has accepted the process outlined in the ordinance but the FOP says he cannot do so. Under a strained interpretation of West Virginia statutes, the FOP is attempting to dictate the chief’s process and tie his hands. Council should not bend to their threat.”

The Mon-Preston Fraternal Order of Police represents the overwhelming majority of Morgantown’s officers.

In other council news, a pay dispute raised against the city by Toriseva — this one involving the International Association of Firefighters Local 313 — was brought to a close as council accepted the terms of a settlement agreement.

The issue arose in March, when a review of Morgantown’s personnel rules revealed the shift differential rules — which were written with eight-hour shifts in mind — had been incorrectly applied to firefighters working 24-hour shifts going back decades.

City Manager Kim Haws announced the removal of differential pay for firefighters, which would result in a reduction of pay of about $2,000 a year for each firefighter, in an internal memo. The firefighters union and Toriseva viewed the move as retaliation as they had recently rejected a settlement offer in an ongoing lawsuit regarding holiday pay.

According to the settlement, firefighters will not normally be entitled to shift differential pay but will receive a proportional increase in their base pay to compensate.

“The wages of current firefighters working 24-hour shifts would be increased by 61 cents per hour and they would also be awarded back pay in that amount so as to make the pay raise effective from March 8 forward,” City Attorney Ryan Simonton explained.

If firefighters are called for unscheduled duty starting during the hours in which shift differential rules apply, they will receive it as the rules are applicable to all city employees.

The settlement also includes $15,000 from the city paid in respect to attorney fees incurred.

Sticking with the firefighter theme, council adopted a proclamation recognizing the 35 years of service to the city provided by recently retired Fire Chief Mark Caravasos.

“It’s been an honor,” Caravasos said. “I’ve had the opportunity to lead a very good group of men. The fire department has come a long way and I believe they’re well set to proceed into the future. Again, it has been my honor.”

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