A lack of leadership left the city floundering during the last police contract negotiations, city officials said, blaming themselves for the recent arbitration that forced them to hand out pricey raises and get no concessions in return.
Police officers got retroactive raises for 2006 and 2007 — 4 percent each year — but no long-term deal. Now both sides are preparing to restart negotiations.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton said he will push for the same concessions he tried and failed to get last time. But this time will be different, he vowed.
“Listen, the old adage is, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” he said. “I wouldn’t characterize it as a ‘disorganization’ but we can certainly learn from it.”
The city’s own attorney was so unhappy with the city’s performance that he wrote an opinion agreeing with the arbitrator’s decision last month. In it, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden criticized the city for being disorganized and said the city could have gotten some concessions from the police.
“There were areas of mutual agreement,” Van Norden said later. “We didn’t know what was important. When it got to court it had not jelled. It just didn’t seem organized.”
Everyone involved in the negotiations blamed a different person for the disorganization. Van Norden said the negotiations fell apart when police Chief Michael N. Geraci Sr. left, although that was after the union had declared that the two sides were at an impasse in October 2007. Stratton implied that the city’s labor counsel, Michael Smith, was ineffective. Smith said the union leaders were deliberately obtuse, while union President Robert Hamilton said the city was so disorganized that he never knew what Smith was trying to negotiate.
But they all agreed that there were heated arguments among the city negotiators, particularly over how to prioritize the various concessions on Stratton’s list.
“There were some differing opinions on certain issues — whether certain things would be productive,” Van Norden said. “The problem was Geraci left. There were three [assistant] chiefs, all equally ranked … they all had different concepts about what was needed. It’s a little bit like shooting the general in the middle of the battle.”
The question now is whether the city can pull together a more effective team for the next round of negotiations, which will start before the end of the year. The two sides may argue through all of next year, Van Norden said.
Van Norden intends to take the lead attorney role, although he has little experience in labor contract negotiations. He said he decided to take over when he watched the city’s argument fall apart during the arbitration hearings.
Smith was arguing that the city needed to eliminate all compensatory time off, which officers can currently take instead of paid overtime. Many officers use their comp time to take days off on Fridays and Saturdays, leaving the city short-staffed at times when crime surges.
The union’s argument, Smith said, was that the city isn’t enforcing the limits it already has for comp time, and therefore doesn’t need further limits. Smith was ready for that, but instead the union pulled out its ace in the hole, Van Norden said.
Union leaders produced paperwork showing that police sergeants have routinely allowed patrol officers to take days off when they didn’t have any comp time left in their banks.
Van Norden said the paperwork undermined the city’s argument.
“It really threw me through a loop,” Van Norden said. “This in my mind crystallized for me what needed to change. The pivotal issue was comp time. I think you can make a compelling case that comp time needs to be eliminated — but it’s preparation, preparation, preparation. That needs to be put together as a compelling presentation. If I have to micromanage it, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Stratton also wants a better legal team. He fired Smith after the arbitration award was announced in September.
“We’re going to get the most effective, competent and timely labor counsel,” Stratton said after canceling the contract with Smith. “There are law firms that are very expert in police negotiations and turning things around and that’s what we’ll look for.”
A “very expert” law firm may cost a significant amount of money, but the budget for outside counsel has been cut substantially in the mayor’s proposed 2009 budget. The spending plan reduces outside counsel costs by $78,000 so that Van Norden can instead hire a second assistant corporation counsel. He told the City Council that he could handle most labor issues in-house if he had a second assistant.
There is still $140,000 left for outside counsel, but much of that is intended for attorneys specializing in tax appeals.
Van Norden said he might use an outside law firm as his adviser during negotiations, which would cut down on the cost.
He said he believes the city will be able to limit — or eliminate — comp time during this round of negotiations. But both Van Norden and Hamilton predicted the negotiations would quickly head straight back to arbitration.
And that, Smith said, is exactly what his long-term plan had been all along.
He said the city’s arguments were not disorganized and that he was not to blame for the arbitrator’s decision.
“I made it clear this would be a process that would take a series of negotiations and frankly I projected a series of interest arbitrations,” he said.
He said Hamilton might have viewed the negotiations as disorganized because the city was willing to discuss a range of concepts aimed at putting more officers on the street.
“We pursued a number of avenues. The union’s response was to put a price on these. The union thought because we were allowing open discussion on an item, that we were interested,” Smith said, citing 12-hour work days as one example. The union agreed to the idea — if the city added another $800,000 to the police raises.
“We had interest in the topic but not at that price,” Smith said.
He also argued the arbitration didn’t give the police too much — they wanted 6 percent annual raises for 5 years and hazardous-duty premiums, he said.
Instead, they got two raises of 4 percent each, at a cost to the city of roughly $1 million in increased salaries and overtime. Smith said there was no way to prevent that.
“This particular [arbitration] panel was compelled to act because of the incredible success the Stratton administration had obtained in righting the financial ship,” Smith said.
But the next arbitration might lead to changes in comp time because the city will be able to genuinely argue that it can’t afford the raises otherwise, he said.
“It is very difficult in interest arbitration to obtain systematic operational change. But when you can demonstrate the financial climate and the facts and circumstances require a change, then you have a chance,” Smith said. “It’s not impossible. It’s extremely difficult. But the city’s right. And at some point, you’ve got to do the right thing.”
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Categories: Schenectady County