For months, Portland’s police union representing rank-and-file officers has warned that if voters approved a new police oversight board on the November ballot, they would fight it tooth and nail at the bargaining table.
With more than 80% of Portland voters supporting the new board, now Portland City Hall is pushing for legislation in Salem that could allow the city to sidestep the brewing fight with the union altogether.
The measure voters approved Nov. 3 changes the city charter to allow for an independent police oversight board with the power to discipline and fire officers. The Portland Police Association has vowed stiff opposition, arguing the board violates the union’s contract, which includes tight restrictions on how the city can discipline its police officers.
The city has asked state Sen. Lew Frederick to draft a bill that would let the city move forward with the new police oversight board, and avoid negotiating over the impacts to discipline with the Portland Police Association. If passed as currently envisioned, the bill would carve out a loophole in Oregon law just wide enough for the new community oversight board to slide through.
Related: Portland police union files challenge to stop voter-approved officer oversight board
This week, Frederick said he’d heard back from the Office of the Legislative Council, which assists state lawmakers with drafting legislation, with its version of the bill requested by the city. The proposed rule would allow the city to create a citizen review board to overview disciplinary matters concerning law enforcement and not observe particular sections of ORS 243.650, which focuses on collective bargaining rules for public employees.
Frederick said there’s a long way to go before a vote, but suspects the legislation will pass when it gets to that stage.
“It’s clear there was support for this,” he said, noting that the measure won by a large margin on Nov. 3. “And we still have the momentum of the issues related to the murder of George Floyd, I don’t think anybody’s going to forget in that next six to eight months.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who championed the new police oversight board, said in a statement she too believes the proposed legislation stands a chance.
“I recognize legislators have several things to weigh when considering this legislation, but we have done our due diligence and I am cautiously optimistic it will pass. No matter the outcome I am committed to ensuring the will of the voters is honored and a truly independent and empowered police oversight board is created in response to the public’s overwhelming call for accountability.”
Brian Hunzeker, the new head of the Portland Police Association, said he believed the city was circumventing the rules governing collective bargaining and setting a dangerous precedent along the way.
“My hope is that state lawmakers look at this bill that they’re trying to propose and realize what it is at its core: the core part of this is somebody didn’t get their way, so they’re going to force everybody else to change the rules to get their way.”
He warned this precedent could be set not just for the Portland police union — but for public and private unions across the state.
“Historically speaking, police have been like the canary in the coal mine,” Hunzeker said. “It’s a very slippery slope.”
The union has blasted the city for asking voters to approve a new disciplinary body without the union’s approval and argued anything related to discipline needs to be negotiated with the union under the state’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act. The union’s attorney, Anil Karia, had warned back in October that “the entirety of the existence of this board will be litigated.”
They did not waste time. Two days after Portland voters approved the oversight board, the union filed a grievance with the police bureau to stop it from moving forward.
“The City is well aware that it cannot escape its bargaining obligations by sending mandatorily negotiable subjects, such as a new disciplinary system for PPA members, to voters for a Charter change without first reaching agreement with the PPA over those changes,” the grievance read.
In response to the grievance, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, has said city officials would defend the voters’ decision “while meeting any bargaining obligations required by law.” His office declined to comment on the proposed bill, citing looming contract negotiations.
Contract talks between the police union and the city are expected to begin in January. It’s not clear when the proposed bill could be introduced to the legislature.