LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday drop-kicked an appeal by Omaha firefighters who wanted to help Fill the Boot while on duty.
The Nebraska Professional Firefighters Association, a statewide union representing about 1,200 first responders, asked the high court to overturn a policy that prohibits public employees from soliciting funds for nonprofit groups while on duty.
The Supreme Court instead affirmed decisions by lower courts that ruled against the firefighters.
Before a 2009 city policy that put an end to the practice, on-duty Omaha firefighters collected donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association by holding out rubber boots at busy intersections and shopping centers. Although firefighters still participate in the campaign in their off time, they raise less money than before, said Dave Engler of Lincoln, president of the union.
“This hurts any city employee or governmental entities that try to do good,” he said of Friday's opinion.
In 2010, the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission issued an advisory opinion that said soliciting funds for nonprofits violated state law when done by public employees while they were being paid with taxpayer funds.
The firefighters sued in Lancaster County District Court to overturn that opinion.
Judge Robert Otte ruled that the court lacked the legal jurisdiction to consider Accountability and Disclosure opinions. The state has immunity from the firefighter lawsuit because the law does not allow commission opinions to be challenged in such a manner.
The firefighters appealed to the Nebraska Court of Appeals, which agreed with the lower court. That ruling prompted the Supreme Court appeal, in which the firefighters argued that the original reading of the jurisdictional issue was mistaken.
“We find no merit to the appellants' claim of error,” Judge Lindsey Miller-Lerman wrote for the unanimous court.
The high court opinion indicated the firefighters might be able to pursue their challenge through another legal avenue.
Meanwhile, Engler said union members would weigh their options.
“We're going to do everything we can to fix this situation,” he said. “It's likely we'll see something in the future.”
In years when they could collect money while on duty, Omaha firefighters raised as much as $100,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Last year, off-duty firefighters raised about half as much, Engler said.
The association's Omaha office did not respond to requests for comment.
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