Originally Published: January 29, 2015 6 a.m.
PRESCOTT - If not for the wildfire that took the lives of Sean Misner and William Warneke in June 2013, the two men almost certainly would have continued working toward their goals of becoming career firefighters, say the widows they left behind.
To reach that goal, the two women testified this week, the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots had committed to working for the City of Prescott at least through October 2013.
The point is crucial in the claim that is being argued this week at Prescott City Hall over Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) survivors' benefits for Amanda Misner and Roxanne Warneke and their families.
The hearings, which will continue through Friday, come just one week after a Yavapai County Superior Court judge affirmed similar survivor
benefits for the family of another of the fallen Hotshots, Andrew Ashcraft.
But while the record showed that Ashcraft had worked on the Hotshot crew steadily for the past 16 months, both William Warneke and Sean Misner were hired in April 2013 - just three months before the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 of the Hotshot crew.
Throughout the opening argument and initial witnesses, Patrick McGroder, attorney for the Misner and Warneke families, emphasized that the state law governing PSPRS eligibility requires employment of at least six months.
Although William Warneke and Sean Misner died before reaching that point, McGroder said the two men had committed to staying on throughout the fire season, which typically runs from April to October, or about seven months.
"It's not a leap of faith to say Sean and Billy would have remained here full-time," McGroder said. "These two fellows never had a chance to complete what they wanted to complete."
The testimony of Amanda Misner and Roxanne Warneke corroborated that claim.
Misner told the board that her husband had moved to Prescott from California to pursue his lifelong goal of being a firefighter. "This was his dream, his passion, and his bloodline business," she said.
And Roxanne Warneke said her husband chose the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew because he "thought they were the best of the best." She added that he hoped to continue on in firefighting and become a fire chief one day.
As in the Ashcraft case, McGroder claimed that the City of Prescott had enrolled Misner and Warneke in the wrong retirement system.
Former city Human Resources employee Laura Markel testified that she had followed established city policy when she filled out the retirement application forms.
Only "budgeted" permanent employees in the fire and police departments were enrolled in the PSPRS, Markel said, while seasonal employees went to the Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS).
"It was very black and white," Markel said. "It was never up for review or assessment. It was well known throughout the department that this is how it worked."
Former Fuels Management Supervisor Todd Rhines offered similar testimony, noting that the city enrolled him in the ASRS. When he asked his supervisor about enrollment in the PSPRS, Rhines said he was told that he should not push the issue if he wanted to keep his job.
According to McGroder, the city's policy on budgeted positions versus seasonal positions is not consistent with state law.
City Attorney Jon Paladini started his opening statement by noting that dealing with the fallen Hotshot retirement cases represented "the hardest thing I've ever done as a lawyer."
And, looking back into the audience, Paladini said, "Mrs. Misner and Mrs. Warneke, we are truly sorry for your loss."
Even so, he said the evidence would show that "there are significant legal hurdles that the applicants have to deal with here."
For instance, he pointed out that Yavapai County Superior Court Judge David Mackey had stated last week that Ashcraft met the PSPRS criteria "once he was promoted to lead crew."
McGroder objected, however, maintaining that Paladini was misrepresenting Mackey's decision. (The judge ruled from the bench and has yet to issue a written decision.)
The hearing opened with objections from the city about a number of McGroder's planned expert witnesses, including past and current PSPRS officials and a U.S. Forest Service official.
Paladini contended that the witnesses would "usurp the role" of the board's legal counsel, adding that the expert witnesses would "testify about the meaning of the statute - in their opinion."
Misner/Warneke attorney Shannon Clark argued that the board should hear all of the information and make a judgment about its relevance.
After going into closed-door session, the local board agreed with the city and excluded four of the expert witnesses from testifying at the hearing.
To preserve the record for appeal, McGroder asked the board to accept an "offer of proof" or preview of the information that the witnesses would have provided.
The hearing will continue at 8:30 a.m. Thursday and, if needed, at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks
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