Amid pandemic, city and police union to propose extension of police union contract with ‘minor changes’
photo by: Nick Krug
City officials and representatives of the city’s police union say they have decided to forgo the typical contract negotiation process because of the coronavirus pandemic, opting instead to put forward what both groups say is an extension of the current contract with only minimal changes.
The city’s employment agreement with the Lawrence Police Officers Association covers wages, benefits and working conditions for officers and detectives and expires at the end of this year. City management staff and the police union representatives met privately regarding the extension and have come to an agreement regarding the contract. The City Commission is scheduled to consider approving the extension of the contract with the agreed-upon changes at its meeting July 7.
The Journal-World asked about the decision to close negotiations to the public given the local and national conversation about transparency in policing, and city representatives indicated it was a decision made a few months ago because of the pandemic and the desire to only extend the current contract.
Specifically, city spokesperson Porter Arneill said in an email to the Journal-World that at the beginning of the pandemic, prior to the April 15 deadline to begin contract negotiations, the city contacted both the police and the firefighters union about extending their existing contracts for one year, instead of the full negotiation process. Arneill said that the city asked for the contract extension because of the challenges being faced by the community, city operations and city government related to the pandemic, and that the city proposed no changes to the contract as a result.
“The City Management Team did not submit additional discussion items to either bargaining group in the spirit of working towards an extension of the existing agreements,” Arneill said.
Both city and union representatives must agree to conduct contract negotiations privately under the city’s resolution that governs the negotiation process, and typically those meetings have been closed to the public.
However, former City Manager Tom Markus reversed that pattern when he held union contract negotiations publicly during his approximately three-year tenure with the city. Markus made the negotiations public as part of his effort to increase transparency and to “reset” the contract with the police union, which he said went beyond acceptable bounds and included provisions that infringed on management rights. Those negotiations were contentious at times and lasted months, consisting of more than a dozen meetings, many hours of discussions, and ultimately required outside mediation.
It is the police union contract negotiated under Markus that will expire at the end of this year and that the city and the union are proposing to extend another year.
When asked for more specifics about the meetings held this year, Arneill said that five meetings were held. He said meetings consisted of establishing mutual expectations for the discussion process; discussion of items that the union brought forward for review; and exchange and review of tentative agreement language and drafts of the contract.
Arneill said neither of the unions considered this year’s process a full negotiation and that the formalities of the negotiation process were considered only to honor the city resolution that governs the contract negotiation process. The City Commission already approved an extension of the contract covering the firefighters union, the International Association of Firefighters Local 1596, earlier this year.
Regarding whether the meetings are opened or closed to the public, LPOA Chair Bill Bradford said in an email to the Journal-World that in the LPOA’s opinion, it is within the purview of each city manager to conduct discussions how they deem appropriate. Bradford said that near the end of the 2018 bargaining sessions, the mediator commented that the closed process allows for more open, honest and frank dialogue between parties. He said the union appreciated the city’s approach.
“We appreciated the work of the City’s management team in helping to make this a smooth and amicable process,” Bradford said.
Changes to the contract
Both city and union representatives indicated that the proposed changes to the contract were not substantial and said they saw it as an extension of the current contract.
Arneill said the police union brought forward some items for discussion and did ask that “minor changes” be considered in the extension, and that those changes were discussed with limited interaction. Arneill said the items related to workers’ compensation or other fringe benefits; clarification about department and city employee handbook policies; and clarification about scope of employment and working conditions. He did not indicate what specific changes to the contract language the union proposed.
Bradford said that at the direction of union membership, union representatives suggested extending the current agreement after limited discussion to “clean up language” from the existing contract. Bradford provided the Journal-World with the document that the union sent to the city at the opening of the contract negotiations, which states that the union compiled the results of a survey distributed to its members seeking input on items of concern regarding the department and the contract to inform the discussion.
The letter states that the union condensed the list of concerns and issues gathered in the survey to seven key items that already exist within the framework of the current contract. The first concern listed was “due process” regarding investigations of police and detectives completed by city administration and the police department’s internal affairs division, which investigates both internal and public complaints. The second concern regarded policies related to infectious disease. The letter states the union was willing to compile draft language for discussion as needed.
The letter states that based on the survey results, the union concluded the membership would not feel comfortable or confident merely extending the current agreement “as is” through 2021. The seven concerns, exactly as they were stated in the letter, are as follows:
• Due process in regards to Internal Affairs Investigations and Administrative Investigations to ensure they fall within and adhere to existing department and city policy.
• Having infectious disease added and or clarified in the injury list included in section 7.2.3 (Causes of Injury) along with changing language in #11 from “Chief of Police” to include a designee as well.
• Open Range compensation due to the potential for worker compensations issues if employees are on their own time.
• Further defining/clarifying “Scope of Employment” in the Indemnification section.
• Adding a second method to the shift bid process, which is preferred by administrators and employees and can simplify the process. Discuss removing the mandatory bid off requirement.
• Clarification and discussion in regards to furloughs and ability to include recruits in the agreement in the event they are pressed into service due to current circumstances.
• Ability for lateral hires to use vacation time after 6 months rather than the standard one year time frame for new hires.
Bradford said that the discussion points proposed did not include any pay increases, and that the union found the format of the negotiations appropriate given the circumstances.
“Due to the uncertain economic impact on the City and the community as a whole as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we felt it was best for all parties to forgo a traditional negotiation session, specifically avoiding discussion of economic issues,” Bradford said.
The LPOA’s last contract, which covered 2019 and 2020, included an increase in the pay plan that lays out wages for each year of experience and an across-the-board general wage increase. More specifically, Bradford said that the pay plan structure remains the same and there was no general-wage increase proposed. The contract’s existing pay schedule includes an automatic pay increase of 2.5% each year for police and detectives who have not reached the top of the pay schedule and the ability to receive another 2.5% merit increase for officers and detectives who meet expectations on their annual reviews.
The City Commission must approve the contract, including all changes agreed to during the recent negotiations, when it considers the contract as part of its meeting July 7.