The Portland Police Association and attorneys for the city made some progress during Wednesday’s round of union contract negotiations, including removing references to gender and dated software systems from the contract, as well as lifting a requirement that items posted on the PPA bulletin board must be signed.
Besides a brief disagreement over an Oxford comma — police union lawyer Anil Karia insisted they’re proper grammar — the morning session was uneventful.
But after lunch, a tense back and forth ensued as PPA attempted to question whether a new oversight board approved by voters in November was legitimate, and if the city over-promised or misled those voters.
“When we overlaid the city’s proposal with the ballot title and the new charter changes, some questions arose,” Karia said.
Karia pointed to the first section of the charter changes voters approved, which states the new oversight board can only start its work after “compliance with any legal obligations the City may have under the Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act.”
He said that first section conflicts with a later section of charter changes that explicitly delineate what the new oversight board “shall do” once voters approve it. Those powers include things like investigating complaints against officers, compelling testimony and disciplining officers.
“So our first question is, hasn’t the city already given all of these powers to the board?” Karia asked, suggesting the two sections of the charter changes conflicted with each other.
City negotiators say those sections aren’t in conflict, and some details of the oversight board may be negotiable at a later date when more is known about the specifics of the new system.
In Wednesday’s negotiations, city representatives again tried to avoid getting bogged down in specifics while maintaining their view that not all aspects of the oversight board are subject to negotiation.
“We have rights as management to engage in disciplinary investigations and to impose discipline,” said Steven Schuback, an attorney hired by Portland specifically for the police contract negotiations. “And we are maintaining that right,”
Union president Brian Hunzeker insisted the city misled voters and made promises about what the ballot measure would accomplish — what it “shall do.”
“Now, if I hear you correctly, Steven, these ‘we shall do things’ are technically up in the air and it’s something the city needs to reconsider and bargain with us,” Hunzeker said.
Schuback disagreed and read directly from the measure’s text.
Eventually, the discussion moved forward and Karia said he would try to reconcile how the city can rest so much of its position on overwhelming public support despite having “misled voters.”
In other business, PPA made a series of proposals ranging from minor tweaks to wording around drug testing removing bureaucratic steps in the grievance process, and changes to how a probationary officer can be disciplined.
Among PPA’s proposals was allowing a suspended officer to use accrued benefits instead of being forced to take time off.
“It seems counterintuitive for the city to impose discipline, have somebody not show up to work, and then incur overtime backfilling that position,” Karia said. “The penalty is still there without the impact to operations.”
With less than an hour left in the day, Schuback dove into another thorny topic: overtime.
Even before the police bureau racked up more than 160,000 hours of overtime during protests last summer, a city audit in 2019 had found substantial problems with how many hours officers were logging.
That report blamed poor management for an overreliance on overtime that is leaving officers susceptible to burnout and on-the-job injuries.
“We want to start simplifying how we handle overtime,” Schuback explained. “There’s just way too many little nooks and crannies on overtime that’s really leading to a hard time tracking it all and great costs.”
In an attempt to address officer burnout and improve work-life balance, the city is proposing a maximum of 30 overtime hours in a 14-day period unless otherwise directed.
Officers get paid overtime when they have to testify in court and some of the proposed changes take into consideration the reality that, because of video conferencing, that is now far less time-consuming.
PPA disagreed with the proposed changes and instead blamed the overtime demand on staffing shortages, contradicting the city auditor’s report.
Karia said officers don’t make their own overtime and are filling an operational need, at the bureau’s request, when they work more than the regular 40 hours.
Karia said the city’s financial problems are self-inflicted.
“In the last fiscal year, the $14 million budget hole was a city self-created problem when the city ... defunded the police bureau by $15 million,” Karia said. “I’ll save you the calculator. The $15 million would have saved you the $14 million downfall.”