Oro Valley Police Officer Dan Krueger and his fellow officers just want a contract with the city. After years of frustrated effort, they decided to take it to residents for a vote.
A new police union, the Oro Valley Police Officer's Association, an affiliate of the 5,000-member Arizona Conference Of Police and Sheriffs (AZCOPS), asked the city for a serial number that would allow it to circulate a petition to do just that.
In a Sept. 3 memo to Town Clerk Kathi Cuvelier, Town Attorney Mark Langlitz nixed the group's serial number, stating such an initiative violated state law "which grants public safety employees the right to join any employee association of their choosing and to present proposals and testimony to the governing body of a town."
On Sept. 25, AZCOPS counsel Martin Bihn filed a special action with Pima County Superior Court to compel the town of Oro Valley to re-issue OVPOA a petition number. Bihn anticipates that there will be a hearing on the matter within the next week or two.
"No way are they right on this, otherwise Tucson, Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe are all acting illegally," said Bihn. "It's going to cost the citizens of Oro Valley a lot of money for no good reason."
"This ordinance is all over the state," he explained. "It authorizes a meet and confer on wages, hours and working conditions, allowing city officials and police to talk about how employment will be handled. It's worked very well."
At the root of the town's objection to the AZCOPS initiative is its language of exclusivity. "If 55 percent (of Oro Valley police) want to join AZCOPS and want to exclusively represent all police, we can't do that," said Langlitz. "It would mean silencing the minority."
The Oro Valley town attorney said he believes the whole thing boils down to a fight for control between the OVPOA and the Fraternal Order of Police, which has bargained for Oro Valley police in the past. "AZCOPS could bring their contract to council tomorrow. They don't need exclusive representation to present their proposal," he said.
Krueger, who is president of OVPOA, said he has no gripe with the FOP. "The FOP does a lot of great stuff within the community. There are a number of people in our organization who are also members of FOP."
But increasingly, he said, the organization is being viewed as ineffective. "The FOP bargains in good faith and goes over (to the council) and requests certain items and initially gets a response, but when it comes down to it, they get nothing," he said.
"We would like something in writing that deals with grievance polices, specifics on representation in internal investigations, wages, benefits and hours," he said. "Right now there is no formal process for any of that. Essentially we're 'at will' employees."
Oro Valley Police Detective Herb Williams, president of the FOP, isn't convinced that a contract is good for all police officers. "We've been talking about a contract for a number of years," he said. "Lately, things have been going well. Do we want to go to a contract that will bind us for a couple of years?"
The OVPOA has seen an "explosion in membership in the last year," said Krueger, largely because of negative perceptions over the firing of Sgt. James Bloomfield. A 14-year veteran, Bloomfield was fired after an internal affairs investigation determined he had lied to superiors about an affair with another officer's girlfriend.
"The impression I got was that he didn't feel the FOP was going to adequately represent him so he had to go out and hire his own attorneys," he said. "A lot of people saw how the department and the FOP handled it and as a consequence decided they wanted to switch." He estimates OVPOA has more than 50 members out of 73 eligible officers.
If the group's measure were to go to voters, it would ask for police officers' rights to meet and confer with the town on issues, grievances, and disputes relating to working conditions, wages, benefits and hours of work, with representation in that process to be elected by majority vote of the police officers.
"We think the town attorney is interpreting the law too broadly," said Krueger. "This doesn't keep any groups from forming, it just allows one group to be the negotiating group and we get to elect our own representation. Just like the council is elected by the voters, they don't get all the votes, but they get a majority."
The initiative is exclusive only "when it comes to formal negotiation during the meet and confer process, not overall," said Krueger. "Officers can form and join any organization they choose, but when it comes to formal negotiation, you negotiate with the group elected by the officers."
This type of meet-and-confer ordinance is nothing new, he added. "It's been passed in 10 cities throughout the state, recently by Tucson, Sahuarita and Nogales." Other cities with the similar ordinances include Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Bullhead City, Lake Havasu and Prescott Valley.
"In Tucson, we didn't have to take it to the voters. We took it to the mayor and council," said Tucson Police Department's Officer Jim Parks, president of AZCOPS and vice president of its affiliate, the Tucson Police Officers Association. "It enables us to sit down and have a working relationship with the city, to protect the rights of our officers.
"What Oro Valley is saying is wrong," he said. "This is a right-to-work state, which means we cannot have a closed shop, but people can come in without joining a union. If Oro Valley police want the OVPOA to represent them, that's their right.
"Our officers have a right to choose their representation," said Krueger, "and to know that whomever they choose will sit down and formally negotiate a contract with the city every year or every other year."
Rather than put the matter to a vote, Krueger said his group would have preferred to work it out with the town council, which could have simply adopted the ordinance.
"We've attempted to meet with them and sit down and talk and this is where we've ended up," he said.
"Oro Valley refused. It had no interest," added Bihn. So the OVPOA chose the only other way to get their ordinance enacted -the ballot box. For the initiative to appear on the March 2004 ballot, the organization must collect 2,500 signatures by Dec. 9.
"There are a lot of cops living in Oro Valley," said Bihn.
"I think they'll be highly motivated and get this thing passed."