At a tense Dec. 1 study session held to discuss police issues, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police put the Oro Valley Town Council on notice that the organization will sue the town if it adopts an ordinance proposed by the rival Oro Valley Police Officers Association. The ordinance spells out a process for town police to elect a representative to be the sole bargaining agent in employment negotiations between the police and the town.
FOP attorney F. Kenton Komadina of the Phoenix law firm Pilch & Komadina sent a letter dated the same day to Town Attorney Mark Langlitz stating that the organization would bring a civil action against the town if it granted exclusive bargaining rights.
"I felt Councilmember (Paula) Abbott was going in the direction of exclusivity," said FOP president Herb Williams. "I spoke to the town attorney. We have served the town that if they go for exclusivity we will challenge it."
At the session, Langlitz repeated previous assertions that the Oro Valley Police Officers Association's proposed meet and confer ordinance violates a state labor law that provides public safety employees the right to join employee associations and freedom to present testimony and proposals to the governing body of a city, town, county or fire department.
Langlitz suggested that the 12 other Arizona cities and towns that have such a provision may also be lawbreakers, even though none have been challenged in court.
Those 12 ordinances cover some 4,000 police officers, about a third of the police officers in the state. About 2,500 of those officers are members of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which exclusively represents the Phoenix Police Department in its negotiations with the city of Phoenix, and has had a meet and confer provision since 1976.
"Our meet and confer is hugely successful," PLEA President Jake Jacobsen, a 27-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department said in an interview. "It allows the city management to sit down with the leadership of the police association and discuss employment issues. It's painless. It's done nothing but improve relations here.
"I don't know where the (Oro Valley) town attorney is coming from," he said. "We are the exclusive bargaining agent for Phoenix police officers. You can only have one. You can't negotiate with two different groups."
Councilmember Bart Rochman proposed that the town attorney seek an opinion from the state Attorney General on whether the exclusivity provision violates Arizona law.
This week, the town attorney said he had contacted the AG's office, but was told it is prohibited from rendering opinions to cities and towns.
"The council must take into account the possibility - the certainty - that any effort to grant exclusivity will be challenged in a lawsuit," Rochman said. "The taxpayers of Oro Valley would likely wonder why did the council do that?"
He proposed that the OVPOA could still get what it wants by putting the issue to voters.
"We attempted to take it to an initiative," OVPOA President Dan Krueger responded. "It was blocked by the town attorney."
Rochman answered: "I'm aware of that and I think the way out of it at this point is to have you proceed with that - and keep the town out of the lawsuit business."
Councilmember Dick Johnson didn't attend the study session because of a family illness.
In the past, as the "non-exclusive" representative of town police, the FOP has functioned as the sole representative for Oro Valley police in wage and benefit talks. FOP President Williams conceded at the study session that many police officers "felt FOP was not doing a good job, that things were being strung along and never settled."
Williams said the process has been difficult during budget season. "It's kind of hard because (Town Manager Chuck) Sweet always says I have no figures, so by the time we do get to you, you've already balanced the budget and so we're behind the eight ball."
On May 9, OVPOA attorney Martin Bihn sent Mayor Paul Loomis a petition signed by 45 of 68 eligible members requesting a change in the town code to recognize the OVPOA as the official representative of town police officers instead of the FOP. The town code now recognizes both associations as "non-exclusive representatives" of town police.
After the study session, OVPOA President Krueger said he viewed it as more foot dragging by the mayor and council.
"They want to continue to do nothing. They're happy with the status quo," he said. "This was purely a political show to make it appear they were trying to work with us even though they weren't."
In the session, Krueger had suggested obtaining another legal opinion on the language of exclusivity and in the meantime going forward with the remaining provisions.
"You can't have two groups coming to the bargaining table," he said. "You'll get exactly what we got Monday night."
Mayor Paul Loomis said of the session that he hoped it represented a step forward.
"Hopefully, they'll continue to put their ideas together and we'll have another good meeting in the future," he said. "The challenge on exclusivity is something they need to live with or we need to decide what we want to do.
"Is a contract going to be put in place? I don't think so," he said. "I don't understand what a contract will do that our policies don't already do. We contract with individuals, at least that's my understanding."