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UPDATE: Federal Court Dismisses Parts of FOP Lawsuit

By: Todd Baucher, John Fortney, WTAP News Email
By: Todd Baucher, John Fortney, WTAP News Email

Update: 3/21/2013 6:25 P.M.

The Parkersburg Fraternal Order of Police Blennerhassett Lodge #79 filed a lawsuit nearly a year ago, charging among other things, a breach of contract after city council approved a freeze in police longevity pay and overtime.

"The cost of approximately $50,000 a year for a police officer, when you're talking about a benefit package, training at the West Virginia State Police Academy," said FOP Lodge President Chris Moorehead last May, "and it's a year before that police officer is functional to the city of Parkersburg, we would not be an agency that would be able to retain the officers it already has."

The breach of contract claim is still part of the suit. But a federal judge this month dismissed claims against Mayor Bob Newell and Police Chief Joseph Martin of violations of civil rights and due process, saying the federal court did not have jurisdiction over those issues. The suit now has been sent back to Wood County Circuit Court, where it was originally filed.

"If there is any violation, it is a simple breach of contract violation, as Judge Goodwin said," Mayor Newell stated Thursday. "It did not rise to the level of civil rights violation, or anything near that. Our law firm is preparing to file a motion to dismiss the rest of it in state court."

Attorneys for Newell and Police Chief Joseph Martin have argued that neither the mayor or the chief should be a party to the lawsuit.

Calls to Moorehead and his attorney were not returned Thursday.

Update 6/05/2012 6:20 P.M.

A suit against the mayor and the city of Parkersburg may be heard by a different court.

The suit is the one filed right before May's primary election...alleging the city failed to properly pay out longevity raises to police.

Mayor Bob Newell said Tuesday a motion may soon be filed transferring to federal court a suit filed by the Fraternal Order of Police Blennerhassett Lodge #79.

That suit says the city failed to grant annual longevity increases to several officers, including FOP President Chris Moorehead.

Newell says motions to dismiss the case were filed in both the federal and local courts.

That case is currently scheduled to be heard August 27th in Wood County Circuit Court.

Update 5/7/2012 6:50 P.M.

The court battle over longevity pay continues.

Mayor Bob Newell Monday told us the city is seeking to have a suit against it dismissed.

The city's countersuit says that...while the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Blennerhassett lodge #79 says its membership overwhelmingly agreed to file its suit last week...only a handful of its members actually voted on it.

Monday's filing says the decision was actually made by a three-member committee of the lodge.

In its motion to have the case dismissed...the city...and Mayor Newell...cited two grounds.

One...that it is misrepresented as an action of the FOP lodge...instead purely as that of its president Chris Morehead.

The second...with the primary coming up...that it is politically motivated.

The mayor told us today that the suit questions actions taken by Parkersburg City Council.

"My reccommendation to city council earlier would have exceeded longevity pay," the mayor said. "With an increase in the base pay...so the suit has no basis for any of the complaints"

The city's motion to dismiss the suit says only 20 of the lodge's 171 members voted to initiate the suit.

John Tiplett, the Marietta attorney representing the plaintiffs, says he had not seen the city's motion...and that any comment on it would come in a court filing.

UPDATE: 5/5/2012

The FOP released a statement saying a secret ballot actually took place Saturday giving the go ahead for the lawsuit filed Thursday with the circuit court.

The president of the FOP Chris Morehead told WTAP News on camera Friday there had been a vote on that day.

He also stated the lawsuit action was supported by the entire FOP and not just himself.

Saturday, WTAP received an email from a former president Greg Collins saying there was no vote Friday.

In the e-mail Collins states: "I was inundated with phone calls from numerous F.O.P. members who were very upset after they found out about the lawsuit on the news. It appears that this was not voted on at any meeting of the F.O.P. The fact remains today that Chris Morehead filed the lawsuit without anyone else from the lodge knowing about it. "

Saturday afternoon a special meeting was called and there was a secret ballot taken. Sources tell WTAP News there were only 22 of 62 members were present.

The lawsuit seeks longevity pay that was originally frozen by the city in 2008.

Mayor Bob Newell is named in the suit. WTAP spoke with the mayor Saturday who says he doesn't blame the officers for going after the longevity pay, but he believes the suit was mis-represented to the court and says the city attorney will ask that it be thrown out Monday.

During an on camera interview on Friday, when asked if there had been a vote on the lawsuit, Morehead stated, "yes sir, there was."

When asked if the suit was supported by the entire FOP, Morehead responds, "the action was taken as the entire FOP as a body. My name was simply on there because I was the president."

It's interesting timing for the suit, the vote, and secret ballot, with the election Tuesday. The FOP told WTAP News Friday the suit had nothing to do with politics.
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Political or not...a suit filed naming the mayor and the city of Parkersburg as defendants...comes just days before the May primary.

Chris Morehead, whose name appears individually on the lawsuit, is also the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Blennerhassett Lodge, also listed individually as a plaintiff in the suit.

He says the membership approved seeking the suit...with what he calls an overwhelming vote.

"The action was taken by the entire FOP as a body," Moorehead says. "My name is on there as president of the Fraternal Order of Police."

But Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell, who says he spoke to several FOP members, including the vice-president of the lodge, says there was no vote taken by the membership, and that it was not sanctioned by the organization.

Mayor Newell says the suit has to do with a freeze in longevity pay approved by city council four years ago.

"They have the right to fight for their benefits," Newell says. "The quandry is that these measures were taken to keep them from being laid off. City council, at some point in time, will have to make the decision as to whether or not reinstate longevity pay."

The suit accuses the city of breaching an agreement made with the city by failing to pay longevity increases and overtime, beginning in the summer of 2010.

Morehead says the concern is that officers may leave the department, not because of layoffs but because of benefit packages.

"The cost of approximately $50,000 a year for a police officer, when you're talking about a benefit package, training at the West Virginia State Police Academy, and it's a year before that police officer is functional to the city of Parkersburg, we would not be an agency that would be able to retain the officers it already has."

As to the timing of the suit, Morehead says FOP members waited for council to address the longevity issue. He says it did not, while granting pay raises to other city workers, and while the mayor proposed abolishing the floodwall fee, which is now been referred to council committees.

Newell says the suit was falsely represented to the circuit court, and that he plans to have city attorney joe santer file an injunction Monday, to have it thrown out.

Mayor Newell faces opposition from former police chief Gerald Board in next Tuesday's Democratic primary.


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