The District government filed suit yesterday in D.C. Superior Court to overturn an arbitration panel's unprecedented ruling that upset pay parity between firefighters and police officers. The suit, filed by the D.C. Corporation Counsel, claims the city's Public Employee Relations Board erred in June when it upheld a three-year, 15 percent wage increase for police officers that had been approved earlier by an arbitration panel.

"The arbitrator's decision and the PERB's response in the case of the Fraternal Order of Police . . . are neither fair nor affordable," Mayor Marion Barry said in a statement released by his office yesterday.

"If allowed to stand, the decision will not only cost District taxpayers millions more over the next three-year period, but will violate the parity that has existed between police officers and firefighters' pay for more than 60 years," Barry said in the statement.

Gary Hankins, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Labor Committee of the FOP, termed the mayor's justification for the suit "hogwash" and said Barry had "turned his back on the working people who normally are identified with the Democratic party and this mayor."

"This award has been sustained by PERB after being awarded by a neutral arbitrator," he said. "It has been supported by every public employe union in town. The argument that the mayor makes about this having tremendous fiscal impact on the citizens is hogwash, to be kind, and is hypocritical in this sense: When the city was presenting its argument in front of the arbitration panel . . . [they] said the ability to pay was not an issue here."

The bitter dispute between the police union and the city government marked the first time the District had been forced to submit a labor contract to binding arbitration. City officials were reluctant to do so because arbitrators would be making significant decisions about pay, benefits and working conditions.

The arbitration panel's ruling in May was a setback for the Barry administration, which appealed to PERB. PERB upheld the panel in June, saying it could overturn the panel only if it had exceeded its jurisdiction or if the award were fraudulent or contrary to law.

After the PERB action, City Council Chairman David A. Clarke asked that the mayor submit the arbitration panel's pay award to the council for final approval. The outcome of a vote there, considered uncertain by many observers, was made moot when the Barry administration did not submit the award and D.C. Superior Court Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin denied a request by the police union to force the mayor to do so.

In the suit filed yesterday, the District contends that the arbitration panel used improper criteria in determining compensation. "The decision was based on cost of living alone without taking into account other factors such as comparability with wages paid to similar workers in the region," according to the statement released yesterday.

The District, since the arbitration panel ruled in May, has said that the pay award would cost taxpayers $23 million over three years. Hankins disputed the contention, saying that in their testimony before the panel, District officials never asserted that the city could not afford the hike.