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LDF Assistance Prompts Coalinga POA Success

Posted on Friday, December 01, 2006 at 12:00PM

What began as a dismal 2005, turned into a string of 2006 successes for the Coalinga POA (POA), fueled by responsive leadership and a broad-based combination of organizational unity, legal persistence, and the aid of a coalition of local police organizations and the Legal Defense Fund.

In early 2005, the POA was stuck in a vicious cycle, as wage increases, and even step increases, had been withheld due to claimed “budget crises” by a city manager, whose budget manipulations were so mysterious that even the City Council, some of whom the POA had helped to elect, were unable to explain them. While the city health benefit plan was maintained in reasonable order, salaries were falling so far behind comparable agencies that even veteran officers were looking elsewhere.

When City Hall threatened to cut back on overtime, which is what most officers had been living on, and when the opening of a nearby state mental hospital created nearby police staff openings at higher salaries, the department seemed doomed. The POA president appealed to the police chief to help with negotiations by at least backing the POA, but she refused. At the same time, the city manager, who insisted on conducting meet and confer himself, was refusing even to make an opening offer for a new MOU.

Frustrated beyond belief, the POA president openly discussed votes of “no confidence” with the police and fire members of the city’s public safety department. Retribution was swift. When the president returned from a short vacation, he found himself placed on administrative leave, for no stated reasons, and told to clean out his detective’s office. He would be off duty for over four months, only to be returned to work and disciplined on the same day, based on a bogus “investigation” that basically refuted all allegations. Not letting these threats deter him, the president called for a no confidence vote in both the city manager and the chief, and the results were virtually unanimous, with only one dissenting vote.

While the city was isolating the POA’s leadership, and stonewalling in negotiations, the chief was busy, making promises to various individual officers of promotion and/or pay increases to keep them from leaving the city, and threatening probationary officers with rejection during probation if they did not back her. She also threatened sergeants in the department with unnamed consequences for refusing to assist in removing the POA president from the association. It would be an understatement to say that things did not look too promising for the future of the POA, which obviously was operating on limited resources.

Fortunately, the association’s requests for assistance did not go unheeded. While the president’s discipline could be addressed through an appeal, a coalition of local police agencies also met with the LDF trustees, and the result was an action for affirmative and injunctive relief, through the law offices of Bennett & Sharpe, the POA’s LDF attorneys, raising claims under the Government Code for anti-union retaliation. When the city tried to stall the action by procedural maneuvers, a Superior Court judge accepted the association’s fundamental theory, namely that the retaliation against the president, timed with the refusal to make an offer in negotiations, and the chief’s threats and attempts to bargain with individual officers, all amounted to a repudiation of the city obligations under law.

It wasn’t easy, and it took time and persistence, but the joint effort paid off handsomely. The city manager was “allowed to resign,” as was the chief, by a city council faced with a citizen revolt and the pending lawsuit. After a new city manager came on board, money was mysteriously “found,” and the city and POA recently signed a new MOU including a 23.87 percent pay increase over three years, retroactive to July 2005. The accusations against the POA president, who by this time had lateralled to another agency, was revoked, clearing his jacket of unwarranted discipline, and a new chief was hired who was experienced in working in a positive union environment. As this article goes to press, association-backed candidates were elected to two of three vacancies on the city council, holding out the promise of a more positive political environment in the city, with a council that will at least listen, and hopefully act, regarding law enforcement concerns.

While the Legal Defense Fund, and its local attorneys, stands ready to assist individual officers in their fight against unjust discipline, the connection of that discipline with association affairs is of equal concern, and will not be ignored. Thinking “outside the box,” legally speaking, helps, but in an internal and (police) community, sense of awareness is pivotal. What was happening in Coalinga could happen anywhere, and has, but a unified police organization response made all the difference for one small POA, and hopefully served a warning to neighboring communities that attacks on officers’ and association rights would be met with a swift, broad-based, and effective response.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.