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12:57 PM Wed, Nov. 21st

Prescott City Council: Appeal of Ashcraft retirement decision up for review

PRESCOTT - A decision is expected this week on whether the City of Prescott will appeal a May ruling by its Public Safety Retirement Board to grant retirement benefits to the family of fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft.

In a special meeting that will take place after the Prescott City Council's regular workshop at 3 p.m. Tuesday, council members will discuss and possibly act on an appeal of the local Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) board's decision regarding the application by Ashcraft's widow Juliann Ashcraft.

Both council meetings will take place at Prescott City Hall, 201 S. Cortez St.

In previous discussions on the Ashcraft matter, several council members have voiced opposition to appealing the local board's decision, maintaining that it is time for the city to move on.

Andrew Ashcraft was among the 19 Hotshots who died a year ago today fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire.

Because Ashcraft was classified as a seasonal employee, the city has contended that his family was not entitled to the pension benefits that the permanent Hotshots received.

In a May hearing by the local fire retirement board, Juliann Ashcraft's attorneys argued that Andrew Ashcraft met the criteria as a full-time, permanent employee and was therefore entitled to retirement benefits. The local retirement board agreed, and voted to enroll Ashcraft retroactively in the PSPRS.

The council has conducted several discussions on whether to appeal that decision to Superior Court, as well as whether to accept a settlement proposal from Ashcraft's attorney.

This week, City Attorney Jon Paladini explained that Ashcraft's attorneys earlier proposed dropping the city from the wrongful death lawsuits that were pending from the families of 12 of the fallen Hotshots. In exchange, the city would agree not to appeal Ashcraft's decision, and would not oppose the similar retirement claims by the families of fallen Hotshots William Warneke and Sean Misner.

Meanwhile, however, the one-year deadline for the wrongful death lawsuits was approaching on June 30, and the attorneys for the 12 Hotshot families ultimately filed their wrongful complaint this past Wednesday, without naming the City of Prescott as a defendant.

Paladini said that leaves the city with the remaining decision on whether to appeal the board's decision. And he maintains that the city did not delay its own decision to do an "end run" around the settlement offer.

Rather, he said the city was awaiting "actuarial" figures on the estimated cost of adding the three Hotshots to its retirement program. The city has since learned that the increased retirement cost would be about $1.9 million, spread out over coming years.

And Paladini says the decision to remove the city from the wrongful death lawsuit was likely based on the strength of the plaintiffs' case, not on the settlement offer.

"The reality is the city has statutory immunity (through Workers Comp), and can't be held liable for wrongful death," Paladini said.

He added that two Yarnell Hill fire investigation reports that came out previously "exonerated the city."

"Our exposure was really, really minimal," Paladini said.

Ashcraft's attorney Patrick McGroder said Friday afternoon that he had initially proposed the settlement agreement to the city, but later withdrew it in a June 20 letter.

The letter states: "I have consulted with my clients regarding the efficacy of their wrongful death claims against the city. They agree with me that we will not pursue wrongful death claims against the city period, irrespective of any of the other terms of our settlement proposal."

McGroder said on Friday that he and his clients agreed that there should be no suggestion of a "quid pro quo" in the matter.

McGroder's letter added: "I will not compound this tragedy for the victims or for the City of Prescott by threatening litigation that we will not file."

McGroder said he plans to attend Tuesday's council meeting to urge the city not to appeal the Ashcraft retirement ruling.

He maintains that the local fire board was in a unique position to review all of the documentation, and hear two days of testimony on the matter, and said the council should support "the good works of the board."

In addition, McGroder said he believes that the evidence proved "unqualifiedly" that Andrew Ashcraft should have been enrolled in PSPRS.

"We're hopeful that this chapter of the tragedy can be put to bed," McGroder said. "But if the council does elect to appeal, we're committed to seeing this through the appellate process, because we think we're right."

During its regular workshop, the council will:

• Hear a presentation on a Wreaths Across America fundraiser.

• Acknowledge the volunteer service of Nancy Nesbit.

• Hear from Kevin Scheevel on transient merchant sales in the downtown business district.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks