After a yearslong negotiation stalled on Monday, it’s back to the bargaining table for the city of Spokane and its police officers.
The Spokane City Council shot down the first tentative labor agreement between the city and police union in nearly four years on Monday, airing concerns about its limits to police oversight.
The same issues prompted the 2013 City Council to block a proposed deal, only to eventually come to an agreement in 2014 that remains in effect today and, critics argue, hampers police oversight.
After Monday’s council vote, a mediator will reopen negotiations between the Spokane Police Guild, which represents about 300 of the city’s police officers, and Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration.
If the two sides reach an impasse, the negotiations will head to binding arbitration by an independent third party.
The Guild has been without a new contract since the previous agreement expired in 2016.
On Monday, the City Council unanimously rejected a proposed contract for 2017 through 2020 over concerns that it did not include the oversight and accountability of the police department that is ensured by the city charter.
Attorneys for the sides will now meet and discuss next steps, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington. The proposed contract was the result of about a year of negotiations through an independent mediator, who will facilitate the next meeting.
“All of the options remain on the table. If it does go the arbitration route, it’s something that could be quite drawn out and lengthy,” Coddington said.
With nearly 70% support of city voters in 2013, the authority of the Office of the Police Ombudsman is written into the City Charter. But the ombudsman’s role is also written into the Police Guild’s contract, and it has never matched up word-for-word with what’s in the charter.
“I think we have more clarity because of what the voters said to us. We have somewhat of a mandate,” said Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who is the only current council member who was serving when the current contract was approved in 2014 and voted in support of it.
Spokane City Council President Beggs argued that, while the proposed agreement made minor improvements to the prior one, it still failed to fully empower the ombudsman to independently investigate complaints without interference and to publish closing reports that detail his interpretation of complaints against officers.
The Police Guild and administration advocated that the council sign off on the contract by noting its reform efforts in recent years and several improvements to police oversight included in the proposed contracts.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Guild lamented the “outrage directed at anyone who supports those working tirelessly to protect our city each and every day,” and sharply criticized the City Council.
“There is a perception purported by elected officials and media the Spokane Police Guild fights and opposes every time an officer is terminated. That is simply not true,” the guild wrote.
“People have said loud and clear, ‘We want the charter to be enforced. We want the charter and the guild contract to match, or we want the bargaining piece and police oversight to be separate issues,’ ” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear. City residents “are not going to settle for anything else.”
Despite Monday’s setback, there are several reasons why both sides still have reason to negotiate a deal and avoid arbitration.
Arbitration could take a year or more, according to city estimates. City officials cautioned it could result in larger pay raises than those included in the proposal turned down on Monday, which totaled $6.2 million over four years.
The city has an incentive to wrap up the deal, which is more than three years overdue, and begin negotiations on a future contract. As its budget is hampered by the coronavirus-ravaged economy, the uncertainty of what pay raise an arbitrator awards makes budget planning all the more difficult.
But police officers who haven’t seen a cost of living increase since 2015 may not want to wait out an arbitration process.
The deal shot down on Monday was negotiated before the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and subsequent national outrage over police brutality. After protesters marched on the streets – and flooded the inboxes of City Council members in the days leading up to Monday’s vote – the Guild may have reason to accept more independent civilian oversight of its officers.
Several council members, despite voting against the contract on Monday, expressed sympathy for the officers.
Kinnear said she and Mumm “both wanted them to get their back pay. We wanted to separate that from the contract, and we were told we couldn’t.”
Council members will likely remain quiet as negotiations reopen.
Although many chose to speak on Monday night, council members were warned by the city attorney that their comments could jeopardize future negotiations and could ultimately lead the union to file a grievance for negotiating in bad faith.
“It was kind of like, ‘You have the right to remain silent and whatever you say can and will be held against you,’ ” Kinnear said.
Kinnear, chair of the Public Safety Committee, and Mumm, chair of the Finance Committee, have been meeting regularly with the administration and police Chief Craig Meidl to discuss the contract.
They expect that collaboration – which they see as a substantial improvement over the administration of former Mayor David Condon – will continue. Ultimately, though, the council does not have a seat at the negotiating table.
It’s uncertain if the council will have the opportunity to vote on another proposal before the negotiations land in arbitration. But, if it does, its members say they will remain steadfast in demanding it comply with the city charter – or leave police oversight off the bargaining table entirely.
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