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LOCKPORT – Who should be considered for promotion to fire chief was the question at the heart of a lawsuit the city filed last week against the firefighters’ union.

The Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association filed a grievance last month, protesting a rule change that added to the field of potential candidates.

The city fired back with a lawsuit asking State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. to issue an order barring the union from obtaining binding arbitration on the grievance.

Kloch has scheduled the case for arguments on Feb. 13, but that’s nearly three weeks after the civil service examination for fire chief, which Mary Pat Holz, city civil service secretary, said is being given Jan. 25.

The issue is on the front burner because Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite has said he’s going to retire sometime this year.

Firefighter Kevin W. Pratt, the union president, said the city broke the terms of a 2011 agreement governing the status of the position of municipal training officer, a Fire Department position now held by Luca C. Quagliano.

The agreement says the training officer stands outside the normal “pecking order” for promotions and is specifically not eligible to compete for chief.

But the Fire Board, a four-member civilian panel chosen by Mayor Michael W. Tucker, changed the rules last June, allowing Quagliano, as well as all captains with at least two years’ experience in that rank, to compete for the chief’s job.

Before the change, which the city Civil Service Commission ratified July 13, only assistant chiefs with at least two years in that rank and 10 years on the force could try for chief.

“We wanted a wider field of competition,” said Fire Board President Peter P. Robinson, who also is chairman of the city Republican Committee.

“We adjusted it, not just for Luca to take the test. We made it possible for captains to take the test. If anything, we’re looking for younger people,” said Alderman Patrick W. Schrader, D-4th Ward, a Fire Board member.

Holz said those who have signed up to take the exam include Quagliano; Assistant Chiefs Patrick F. Costello, Michael B. Seeloff and Matthew O. Streckewald; and Capts. Patrick K. Brady and Thomas E. Lupo,

The Fire Board will choose the next chief from the top three scorers, plus ties, on the civil service exam. Holz said the scores probably won’t come back from Albany until eight to 10 weeks after the test.

Pratt said the union grievance pertains to the city changing the rules without telling the union.

“It’s got nothing to do with the individual,” he said.

But at the same time, Pratt said he thinks the city administration favors Quagliano for chief.

“I believe it’s probably some kind of manipulation from the City of Lockport to open that test up,” Pratt said.

The union president said he thinks Quagliano, who has been a firefighter less than 13 years, isn’t experienced enough to be chief.

“He has never had any experience as an officer. It’s a huge disadvantage,” Pratt said.

Quagliano did not return calls seeking comment.

“I don’t get involved with the Fire Board, and neither do the aldermen,” Tucker said. “Luca is not our preferred choice. We don’t have a preferred choice. I don’t think most of the Council even knows who’s in line.”

Pratt said the union filed three other grievances in recent weeks over health insurance issues, but only the question of chief eligibility provoked the city to go to court to try to prevent arbitration.

“They’re the one who threw the first elbow. We’re just protecting ourselves,” Tucker said.

He and Deputy Corporation Counsel David E. Blackley speculated that the original idea for changing the eligibility rules might have originated with Passuite, who did not return calls seeking comment.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com