Council May Be Locked-In to Secretly Negotiated Police Contract

The final vote on the police contract will be public, but it’s arguably just for show.

The city is in negotiations with the police union.

Those negotiations—which pertain to everything from pay to officer discipline—have been conducted behind closed doors for over a year.

Supposedly, the negotiated contract that eventually emerges will be subject to public scrutiny and input before the city council votes to accept or reject it in a public meeting. And that’s true: there will be a regular, public council vote before any new contract gets approved. At that meeting, citizens will be free to argue for or against the contract, providing the impression that they could have a say in whether the contract receives final approval from the council.

However, public feedback is unlikely to affect that full council vote, because by the time such a vote occurs, a majority of the council may already be legally obligated to vote in favor of the contract.

That’s because five members of the council—a majority—sit on the secret contract negotiating team, meaning that if they approve a draft contract in negotiations, they could be legally obliged under “good faith” bargaining rules to vote in favor of the contract when it comes before full council.

Even if councilmembers want to change their vote after hearing public input—say, because of wide citizen outcry over weak reform provisions—doing so could put the city at risk of a costly lawsuit with the police officer’s union.

In other words: the city council may effectively decide whether or not to accept the new police contract before the public has even looked at it.

Contract negotiations between the city and the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) have been ongoing since January 2015, and are in the process of tenuously wrapping up. Those negotiations have been held in secret, like other contract negotiations with city employee unions. Advocates of police reform have called for them to be made public, as The Stranger reported last month, since many important reforms (like effective police oversight) are dependent upon the details of the SPOG contract. Defenders of the secret negotiations point out that the council will eventually review and vote on the contract in a public meeting with public comment—yet the “good faith” element complicates that picture.

The city’s position during negotiations has been dictated by the Labor Relations Policy Committee (LRPC), which includes five of nine councilmembers as well as three representatives of the mayor. Assuming negotiations wrap up as expected, SPOG’s members will vote later this month on whether to approve or reject the newly negotiated contract. If they do approve it (not a sure thing, given recent drama over leaked information from the secret negotiations), all nine members of the city council will vote in a public hearing on whether to ratify or reject the contract.

David Bracilano, Director of Labor Relations for the city’s Human Resources department, confirms that if and when that happens, the five councilmembers on the LRPC who approved the contract during secret negotiations may be legally obliged to vote yes in full council.

“The reason we have the LRPC is to prevent” a situation where a contract is approved during negotiations but then rejected by council, says Bracilano. If a majority of councilmembers approve the contract during negotiations but then vote to reject the contract in full council, he says, “a union could consider it an unfair labor practice.”

Ron Smith, president of SPOG, says “If that scenario played out we would consider all of our options [including] a lawsuit or Unfair Labor Practice” claim.

Asked whether the “good faith” legal obligations put on the five LRPC councilmembers undermine democratic process by effectively removing public comment from the decision making process around the new SPOG contract, a spokesperson for Mayor Ed Murray replied that “SPOG can file any number unfair labor practices…We cannot speculate on how the LRPC or full Council will vote on any package that has yet to be presented…Like other pieces of legislation, there will be a public comment period and the Council has the legal right to incorporate comment as they see fit. Again, that will be up to Council.”

In addition to three mayoral representatives, the LRPC consists of councilmembers Tim Burgess (chair), council president Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien, Debora Juarez, and M. Lorena González.

Interviewed yesterday, González, who previously worked as legal counsel to Mayor Murray, called the councilmembers on the LRPC “an integral part of setting the parameters and giving guidance to the city labor negotiators.” Once a contract has been negotiated that fits whatever the LRPC said it needed—in other words, once a contract has been approved by the LRPC—those five city council members “have committed to voting in favor of the final contract,” says González.

She’s adamant that any public meeting in which the full council votes on a new SPOG contract would be a real vote, not just a rubber stamp—though what González told us in interview seemed to indicate the opposite. The final vote “is done in chambers, in public,” she says, “when there is a vote of the full city council on approving the final terms of the contract.” But by that point the five councilmembers on the LRPC are already locked-in to voting yes, aren’t they?

“Well, we would have given our collective input as the five majority council members to the city negotiator. There is a good faith requirement on behalf of the city to have that level of consensus, so that we don’t trip up labor laws and trigger an unfair labor practice.”

Councilmember Lisa Herbold is not on the LRPC. And she worries that because she isn’t, she may not get to cast a meaningful vote on whether to accept a SPOG contract—just a show vote in council chambers after the LRPC has already committed to approving the contract. “I am under the impression that we cannot make changes to the contract at this stage,” she said in an interview yesterday, adding that she had not yet seen a draft of the contract.

It sounds like you feel your hands are tied, councilmember.

“Yeah,” said Herbold. “Yeah.”

All this said, there’s a chance the contract could soon become moot—at least in the short term. In order for the full council to even vote on the contract in the first place, it must first be approved by SPOG’s membership. SPOG president Smith says that the sentiment he’s heard among his members is that the contract “most likely will be voted down due to the City’s breach of confidentiality and a few other things.” If that happens, council won’t be voting on any SPOG contract until a new one is negotiated. Smith says SPOG member votes on the contract will be counted on July 21.

UPDATE Lisa Daugaard of the Public Defender Association responded over the weekend to this article with the following statement:

“This analysis is correct. This is why many of us are suggesting that the City’s side of the bargaining process take place in the sunlight, without the secrecy currently permitted under city ordinance. It’s also important that the City bargaining team have access during the bargaining process to technical advice from experts in the field of police reform, which the CPC and OPA Auditor requested going into this current round of bargaining.”