Members of the Oro Valley Police Officers Association are seeking to oust Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 53 as a public safety employee representative group and in the process become the sole bargaining agent for Oro Valley police officers at the rank of sergeant and below.

Officer Dan Krueger, president of the association, an affiliate of the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs, (AZCOPS) said petitions have been signed by 47 of the department's 71 officers who would be affected by the change. The numbers include officers who have dual memberships in both groups. The OVPOA currently has 51 members.

Krueger said the move by the Oro Valley Police Officers Association to seek sole representation in a meet and confer process in such matters as salary negotiations and grievance hearings initially stemmed from the way the FOP was spending member dues and the weak legal representation offered by attorneys hired by the FOP.

"There were some trips, conferences and things they were sending people to," he said. "It just wasn't where we felt our dues money should be going." Then, when AZCOPS, the fastest growing police organization in the state with 5,000 members, came in with a plan that offered better legal representation, "that's the plan we decided we wanted to go with," he said.

Fueling the interest in the Police Officers Association, which had been basically stagnant, Krueger said, was the recent case of Sgt. James Bloomfield, a 14-year veteran fired after an internal affairs investigation determined he had lied to superiors about an affair with another officer's girlfriend.

Bloomfield appealed his firing to a grievance board which had the power to reinstate him, reinstate him with a lesser discipline or uphold the firing. The Oro Valley Employee Grievance Board upheld the firing on a 3-2 vote April 8.

That decision is now being appealed on grounds the state's open meetings law was violated and Bloomfield was denied due process, said Michael Storie, Bloomfield's attorney.

"A lot of our membership came over because of the Bloomfield fiasco," Krueger said.

The way the department's command staff handled Bloomfield's investigation was a major concern to officers and caused many to join the OVPOA. Another concern for officers was the inadequacies in the FOP's leadership and legal team, Krueger said.

"What (Bloomfield) did was stupid, but it was also something he shouldn't have been fired for. What happened to him could happen to any of us," he said.

Bloomfield initially had an FOP lawyer representing him in his effort to get his job back, but ended up hiring his own attorney even though he was paying FOP dues to have his legal fees covered. During the grievance board hearing Bloomfield switched lawyers again, hiring Michael Storie, AZCOP's attorney.

Bloomfield declined to comment.

Storie said that when Bloomfield hired a private attorney to represent him in the dismissal action, the FOP decided it was not in its best interest to act as co-counsel.

Detective Herb Williams, FOP president and a 17-year, OVPD veteran, said his group isn't competing with the Police Officers Association for representation before the council, but by seeking to be the exclusive representative, the association may be setting a bad precedent, cutting off other groups, as well as the FOP from having their members' interests represented.

Williams said he has encouraged officers to maintain their memberships in both groups, to use AZCOP's attorneys if they think its attorneys are better, but to retain FOP ties because of the group's basic philosophy of giving back to a community that has given so much to them.

"Is morale down in the department? Yes," said Williams. "Is it because of the AZCOPS-FOP issue? I don't think so. I've heard this for years, that morale is bad, but you still have the same people working here. If they are so paranoid that the same thing could happen to them, why are they still here?"

Williams pointed to benefits the FOP has garnered for its members and town employees in general in terms of salary increases, changes in health, disability and retirement plans and even an 11th holiday in the latest budget. He suggested that some may be getting a little greedy in turning away from a community-giving approach and more toward a political one.

Krueger said he wants his association to represent officers in year-to-year negotiations with the council.

"Every year it seems like we negotiate in good faith and they tell us 'yeah, we're going to try and do this for you, we're going to try and do that for you' and nothing happens," he said.

"We weren't included in any of the negotiations this year but the FOP was," he said.

The FOP isn't happy that we're taking over and taking away their power," Krueger said. "But ultimately we all have the same goal. We all want better working conditions, to be competitive in pay and have good benefits. The two organizations just have different views as to how to get to that end result.

"Our philosophy is to get more political, to support or not support candidates for office, whereas the FOP has always tried to work with people without getting involved in the political realm," Krueger said. "But because of the nature of working with government and having to negotiate a deal with the councilmembers, sometimes you have to get involved politically.

"Ultimately what we'd like to do is establish a meet and confer process with the town and get a contract, be able to say to them these are some given on hours, assignments, grievance procedures and policies, to get some of the things taken for granted written in stone so that for whatever reason, if the chief or the administration is upset with an officer just because they didn't go along with something, they can't just pull our chain and take things away," he said.

The FOP's Williams warned that the association could find contributing to candidates' campaigns in Town Council election to be a two-edged sword when candidates not supported by the association are victorious and turn against those who failed to back them financially.

In terms of a binding contract, the flexibility for change that exists today may be lost as well, he said.

Krueger said he has either sent letters and e-mails or left phone messages with the four council members and Mayor Paul Loomis over the past several months but no one has yet responded except Councilmember Bart Rochman and that was for just a short time.

Town officials said Rochman, the Town Council's liaison to the Police Department, tried to get back in touch with Krueger several times but was unsuccessful.

Rochman was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

"We believe everyone should be equal before the council," said former Police Chief and current Vice Mayor Werner Wolff.

The Police Officers Association appears to be under the impression that because more than 51 percent, or a majority of police officers, have signed petitions in favor of the association as the exclusive bargaining agent, that's the way it should be, Wolff said.

"But we've never said anything about 51 percent or 53 percent or whatever," in terms of granting exclusive bargaining rights, Wolff said. "That's what they want. It's taken strictly from the city of Tucson. But they don't act the way we do in Oro Valley. Tucson is a charter city and can make its own laws. We can't."

If the council continues to refuse to discuss the association's request for sole representation in a meet and confer process involving the council or its designated official, the group plans to circulate petitions to have the issue placed before voters in the spring.

Martin Bihn, general counsel for AZCOPS in Phoenix, said such a delay by the council could be costly because if the council approves the Oro Valley Police Officers Association as the sole negotiating agent, it could change its mind at a later date, but if voters approve such a measure, the town would have to return to voters to enact a change.

Mark Langlitz, Oro Valley town attorney, said however, that even if voters approved such a measure it wouldn't be enforceable because under state law, the council must recognize the rights of any public safety group to represent employees before the council and cannot grant exclusive rights to a single group to the detriment of others.

Langlitz said he is now preparing an amendment to the town code that would make representation to the council neutral to any employee group and clarify the town's stance of recognizing all employee groups, not one over the other.

Recognizing the FOP as an "official, nonexclusive" bargaining group, as the town does now, for example, means nothing in terms of contract bargaining, he said.

In 1999, the FOP succeeded in presenting to voters an initiative to force the town to accept the FOP as the bargaining agent for police and give an arbitrator the authority to set wages in the event of a dispute between the FOP and the town.

The measure passed, but petition signatures were ruled invalid because they were submitted late and the initiative itself was seen by the courts as an unconstitutional delegation of the town's legislative authority.

At the same time, the town established the policy in place today recognizing the right of all employees to form employee associations within the parameters of state law to present proposals and testimony to the Town Council without threat of discharge, discipline or discrimination due to the exercise of their rights.

The FOP has been the only public safety employee group to make presentations to the council under that policy.

The policy reads in part:

"The Town Council will make arrangements to meet annually with individual employees; employee groups; or representatives of employees of employee groups who express desires to meet with the council to recommend or propose changes to compensation plans, benefit plans, or address issues which significantly affect employee working conditions. To provide for subsequent budget actions, if required, all parties should strive to ensure that such meetings should be concluded no later than February 15 of the fiscal year.

"Should council liaisons or employees disagree regarding a specific course of action, items of discussion may be brought forward for public hearing at a future Town Council meeting. Whenever practical, issues of this nature should be placed on an agenda within the time frame of the next three regularly scheduled council meetings."

The Oro Valley Police Officers Association's aim, Krueger said, is to establish a meet and confer procedure leading to a binding memorandum of understanding between the association and the town regarding association concerns.

Krueger said it would be similar to what was approved by voters in Sahuarita in May and in place in other towns such as Nogales, Bullhead City and Camp Verde.

In Sahuarita, the police association went to voters after the council refused to agree to a meet and confer process of negotiating a labor agreement, said Mayor Richard R. Grabowski. Voters approved the meet and confer process by a narrow margin in May and police then selected AZCOPS as their agent to represent them. The council retains the power to approve, deny or alter any association proposals.

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