News

War of Words

Police contract negotiations get nasty

by

Mud-slinging, name-calling, criminal accusations and public protests with ready photo ops—no, not the latest scandal-filled political campaign, but the Boise Police contract negotiations.

For the last several weeks, the Treasure Valley's media outlets have been filled with bitter, tension-packed statements flung at leaders of the City of Boise as the city and Boise Police Union struggle to find common ground and approve a new police contract. It's been more than a year since the last contract expired, and the parties hardly seem closer to reaching an agreement than when the process started. The bad blood is already staining the relationship between Mayor Dave Bieter and the police and could play a role in the ongoing mayor's race.

Recently, police union leaders have stepped up their battle plan, unleashing a barrage of personal attacks on both Mayor Dave Bieter and Jade Riley, his assistant for administration and policy. It's become an unabashedly political fight, a description union leaders aren't ducking.

"The politics is, I want a contract for my members, and the truth is, this mayor and his staff are the worst mayor and staff the police union has ever worked with," said union president Kip Wills. "Why would we want four more years of that reign?"

Union leaders even went so far as to hire a private consultant as their communications director—Mike Tracy, a former aide to Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Craig.

Councilman Alan Shealy places the blame firmly with the union for the current public battle. "It's really the union leadership that's making it personal," Shealey said. "They're the ones who went nuclear on this."

City Council members have declined to speak out on the specifics of the negotiations, citing an agreement not to negotiate the contract in public. It's an agreement Wills said never existed.

"It's a lie; the mayor knows it's a lie," Wills said. "Their hired labor attorney presented a list of rules to follow, and we said no, the taxpayers should know."

That's just one example of the two extremely different views of the process. A few facts are not disputed. The last contract expired in April 2006. The city presented the union with a contract in February 2007, which city leaders called a "best-in-class" offer. The union rejected the contract. In April 2007, the City Council sent a letter, signed by all six council members and Mayor Bieter, directly to all rank-and-file police officers outlining the details of the contract. A private mediator met with both sides on May 21, 2007.

Under the city's proposed contract, officers would get raises ranging from 6 to 11 percent, depending on their rank and tenure with the department, which would be phased in over two years. This would mean salaries of $37,440 to $39,276 for entry-level officers; increasing in steps to $64,836 to $67,596 for 20-year officers, and $67,092 to $71,256 for sergeants.

But, Wills said, the offer does not make every level of officer the best-paid in the state. He'd rather see a 10 percent increase across the board. According to the letter sent by the city, the union wanted either a 10 percent increase with no change in health care, or a 21.5 percent increase over four years with accepted changes to the city's health-care plan.

Regardless of the details of any contract, it's the battle tactics that have garnered the greatest attention in recent weeks.

The opening volley included an interview on KBOI-AM radio in which Wills focused attention on Riley's April arrest for drunken driving. The campaign continued with a public protest in which roughly 100 people—union members, their families and members of the local carpenters union and Mothers Against Drunk Driving—marched in front of city hall.

During the protest, union members passed out a flyer, which reads in part, "Perhaps Bieter's aides, like Jade Riley, are the problem. Anyone with two DUIs appears to have bad judgement and a problem with law enforcement."

While Riley was arrested in April, a 1997 arrest for suspicion of drunk driving was dismissed, as was a conviction for reckless driving after he completed the terms of his probation.

Union leaders accused Riley, the former executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, of outright rejecting proposals from the union, although city officials said Riley has no such power. Riley isn't part of the five-person team, said Bieter's spokeswoman, Elizabeth Duncan. The city's negotiating team is made up of Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson, Deputy Chief Pat Peterson, city director of Human Resources Shawn Miller, Kevin Borger of the city attorney's office and Tonya Wallace with the Budget and Finance office.

This team gives its reports to Riley, who in turn, briefs the City Council in executive session with the city's negotiation team present.

Wills disputes that characterization.

"Saying he hasn't been involved in the city's negotiation process is, at best, misleading, at worst, a lie," he said.

It's these attacks on Riley that have raised the ire of many on the council. Shealy called the attacks a "complete non-sequitur."

"It saddens me," Eberle said of the attacks. "But it doesn't change my opinion of the police and the job they do. They do a great job for the city, and we want to do right by them."

Eberle said the negotiation process isn't a personal one for him. "It's difficult to watch, but it's not going to affect my judgment one way or another. There are 280-some-odd officers doing their jobs out there every day, and I would like to give them a raise and improve their health care. They've worked very hard, they just have a different opinion."

There are currently 275 officers serving on the Boise Police Departement, 240 of which are paying members of the union. The city is authorized to employ 286 officers.

But Wills said there is a "total lack of respect from the mayor and some of the council. They already dislike their police officers, that's obvious," he said.

As negotiations have turned increasingly political, suspicions have focused on councilman Jim Tibbs, a former Boise Police officer and current candidate for mayor, running against Bieter. Through his campaign manager, Matt Ellsworth, Tibbs denied having anything to do with coordinating the union's efforts. Tibbs has not spoken about the contract in public. But he did sign the April letter sent to police officers.

From Wills' perspective, the attack-style campaign is doing just what it was designed to do.

"We accomplished what we set out to do," he said. "To make them aware of the situation and put pressure on the city to come to the bargaining table." He said the union's future tactics "will continue to escalate as they continue to [not] recognize the need for valuing the police officers."

The attack strategy may backfire, though. Shealy said the union's new approach has changed his attitude toward the contract negotiations. "I can't speak for the other council members," he said. "[Union leaders] just came up with trumped-up excuses. They engaged in this scorched-earth policy of personal attacks. If they think that's going to help their cause, they've got another thing coming. I think they're on dope and dog food.

"They've called us liars. They've called us deceitful. They're pulling all the tricks out of the book. I think it's despicable," he said.

Even if a contract is signed soon, it will expire at the end of March 2008. Negotiations for the next contract will begin in November, meaning there's another battle just around the corner.