The Oregon Legislature removed any legal hurdles Monday that could have prevented Portland’s new police oversight board from being stood up. That board, which voters approved in November with a landslide 80% support, will have the power to investigate use of force incidents and discipline officers.
“The board is a culmination of 30-plus years of work by a large and diverse coalition of community members and leaders who have envisioned a better way for the Portland Police Bureau and community to work together,” said Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, before the vote Monday.
The board potentially conflicted with state law that requires public employee discipline rules go through union negotiation. The Portland Police Association, the union representing rank and file officers, filed a grievance with the Portland Police Bureau two days after the oversight board measure passed.
“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 (city) Charter change without first reaching agreement with the PPA over those changes,” the grievance stated.
The city of Portland is currently in union negotiations with the Portland Police Association. Since those talks began in January, the union has continued to insist the new board is subject to collective bargaining.
The passage of SB 621 renders the issue moot by tweaking state law to allow voter approved, community police oversight boards to remain in effect without negotiating with the union.
“When we proposed Measure 26-217 to voters last November, we were honest that there were additional steps needed to ensure the new independent police oversight board would be the best it can be,” Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who championed the oversight board ballot measure, said in a statement. “I’ve remained committed to that process and I’m thrilled to see this next step is complete.”
Critics of SB 621 said Portland wasn’t entirely honest with voters, and pointed to a clause in the oversight board ballot measure promising to fulfill “any legal obligations the City may have under the Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act.” They said the city effectively promised voters it would negotiate with the union then retroactively petitioned state lawmakers to change the law.
“Senate Bill 621 would now overrule the will of Portland’s voters and would allow the City to renege on its promise to the voters and its police union,” Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs representative Michael Selvaggio said in March testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The only effect of SB 621 will be to give the City of Portland a legislative pass to avoid its promises to the voters and its police officers so that the City can now unilaterally implement its measure without collectively bargaining.”
Other non-law enforcement unions, however, didn’t rally to that cause. Multiple union representatives have voiced support for both Portland’s oversight board and SB 621.
“As a labor union that represents workers from various sectors throughout the state, we have heard some folks call SB 621 an anti-union bill,” Alberto Gallegos, a representative of the 85,000-member Oregon chapter of the Service Employees International Union, said in Senate testimony. “That is not true.”
Gallegos noted that police officers would still retain their right to bargain their wages, health care and other benefits.
Implementing the new oversight board has been slow going. The ballot measure called for a commission to be formed to hash out specifics of how it would function and who would be on it. But seven months after voters approved the measure, that commission has yet to be formed. A spokesperson for Hardesty said council received more than 100 applications to sit on the commission, and they are in the final stages of making those selections.
The Portland Police Association declined to comment.