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Prescott will not appeal Hotshot benefits; dispute over for 3 widows

Cindy Barks/The Daily Courier<br>Hotshot widow Juliann Ashcraft, center, is congratulated by family members Tuesday, March 10.

Cindy Barks/The Daily Courier<br>Hotshot widow Juliann Ashcraft, center, is congratulated by family members Tuesday, March 10.

PRESCOTT - The dispute over retirement benefits for three widows of fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots ended this week with three split votes of the Prescott City Council.

In two 4-2 votes, and one 5-1 vote, council members agreed on Tuesday, March 10, not to appeal the earlier decisions granting Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) survivor benefits to the families of Andrew Ashcraft, Sean Misner, and William Warneke.

That effectively ends the year-and-a-half-long clash between the Hotshot widows, who maintained that their husbands met all statutory requirements for benefits, and the city, which has contended that Ashcraft, Misner, and Warneke were seasonal employees, and not eligible for PSPRS.

After the votes, Ashcraft's widow Juliann said she was "grateful to the council for voting with their conscience as opposed to whatever bureaucracy that was happening behind the scenes."

While noting that "the sting of death will never go away," Ashcraft said the city's decision would allow her and her four young children "to have hope for taking a step forward."

She added: "Hopefully, finally, this can be over."

In the Ashcraft case, as well as for Misner and Warneke, the local PSPRS board had agreed with the widows, granting survivor benefits to them and their children.

The Ashcraft decision occurred first - in May 2014 - and generated an appeal by the Prescott City Council to Yavapai County Superior Court.

In January 2015, Yavapai County Superior Court Judge David Mackey upheld the local board's decision, ruling that Ashcraft was eligible for retirement benefits.

The council called a special meeting this week to determine whether the Misner and Warneke matters should also be appealed to Superior Court, and whether the Ashcraft case should go to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Patrick McGroder, attorney for the Hotshot families, urged the council to allow the earlier board and court decisions to stand.

He pointed out that when the City Council opted in 2014 to appeal the local board's decision on Ashcraft, Councilwoman Jean Wilcox had asked for an "independent judicial review" on the matter.

McGroder maintained that the city had received that independent review from Judge Mackey.

Now, McGroder said, "My clients, my widows and the six kids - they want finality."

As he did throughout the multi-day fire board hearings, McGroder stressed the hazardous nature of the Hotshots' work.

"These three gentlemen were burned alive," he said. "The idea that they were not regularly assigned to hazardous duty - it's a misnomer; it's an illusion."

The council also heard from Deborah Pfingston, the mother of Andrew Ashcraft.

"I am asking you guys to please step up," she said, reminding Councilman Charlie Arnold that he had graduated from high school with Andrew, and Councilman Steve Blair that his son had played as a child with Andrew.

"I ask that you vote fair," Pfingston said.

Councilman Greg Lazzell, who voted against the 2014 motion to appeal the Ashcraft decision, again agreed with the families, maintaining that Ashcraft, Misner, and Warneke died carrying out the duties of Hotshots.

"They weren't lumberjacks; they weren't gardeners; they were Hotshots," Lazzell said, adding that despite his concerns about city's finances, "I still have to sleep at night."

But Mayor Pro Tem Chris Kuknyo - filling in as mayor for Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, who declared a conflict of interest on the appeal decisions - maintained that some questions still remained.

"My feeling is if they qualified for (retirement), we owe it to them, but if they didn't, we don't," Kuknyo said.

While emphasizing that he had "no desire to put the families through more grief," Kuknyo pushed for more clarity on eligibility. He ultimately voted against Lazzell's motion not to appeal the Warneke and Misner matters, but with the majority on the Ashcraft decision.

Wilcox maintained that neither Mackey nor the local board had answered all of the questions on eligibility and local authority.

"I think we need to appeal it," said Wilcox, the only council member to vote against all three motions not to appeal.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks.

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