Behind Closed Doors 

In Cop Talks, Privacy Trumps Much-Touted "Transparency"

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PORTLAND'S TRUMPETED decision to "open" last year's contract talks with its main police union—a stance taken on behalf of "transparency" amid heavy public pressure—appears to have been nothing more than political theater.

Documents obtained by the Mercury show that the heaviest lifting on the contract was conducted away from the public bargaining table and handled, instead, in private meetings at Portland Police Association (PPA) headquarters and other locations.

Even as the Portland Bureau of Human Resources (BHR) was diligently notifying reporters and citizens about the public meetings, and proclaiming its insistence on transparency, it embraced the closed-door sessions as a way to air the most controversial issues up for debate—a method that would avoid tipping off skeptical cops on one side or police accountability advocates on the other. In fact, in five public sessions starting September 17, 2010, before the talks were shunted into mediation in December, negotiators barely scratched the surface of the thorniest issues on the table.

Emails sent between the city and union, as well as calendars for two city negotiators—all obtained by the Mercury through a public records request—show how BHR, led by Director Yvonne Deckard, devised a workaround to reconcile the expectations it created around "transparency" with the reality of striking a complex labor deal. Those emails also reveal agreements that weren't thoroughly discussed in public, and aren't included in the copy of the contract posted on the city's website.

Among them are grievances the union would agree to drop, including a challenge of the city's new Police Review Board. Also included is a list of what the union claimed were routine, longstanding police bureau policies that the city wanted to "disavow" in writing. One wasn't so routine: The PPA now agrees that if an officer is accused of an off-duty drunken-driving offense, the city can take away that officer's gun and badge.

(Click here to read the emails and examine drafts of the evolving contract. Click here and here to check out the calendars.)

"SOME OTHER MEETINGS"

In interviews, Deckard and PPA President Daryl Turner confirmed the private sessions.

"There were some other meetings where we talked about bargaining," Turner said in his only comment. "Besides that, I have to refer you to the city."

Deckard candidly told the Mercury she authorized—and joined—private meetings and calls on proposals, referring to them as a normal element of bargaining. And she contends the unpublicized discussions are still compatible with what she said is a city policy that provides for public negotiations.

"If anyone is thinking that how an entity gets to a contract is only by talking officially, over the table, it will take you a long time to do that," she said. "There was never any formal decision or intent in my mind on my part to say, 'I don't want the public to know about this.' My intent was to try to get to a negotiated settlement."

That settlement, approved by city council on February 2, 2011, produced some political victories for the city: random testing for recreational drugs and steroids, nominal union agreement on tightened oversight protocols, reduced cost-of-living raises, and limits on when cops can take time off. But it came at a high financial cost: $17 million over the next five years ["Breaking the Bank?" News, March 10]. Officers received an overall two percent raise and cash for working odd shifts, being fit, and college educated.

Deckard was then reminded of a statement last January from Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman, who first pushed for open talks. At the time, he praised the city for letting advocates "see how the sausage is being made."

Her reply: "They asked to see how the sausage was made on the public side. They didn't ask what some of the other ingredients were. Will they be disappointed? Hopefully not. But they also have to look at the bottom line."

Other political observers who declined to be identified because they weren't familiar either with Deckard's thinking or marching orders from above, said the public should hardly be surprised—no matter the impression city officials conveyed about the talks. This is always how touchy negotiations are done.

But Handelman, when told of the Mercury's findings and the city's response, offered a tart response.

"We've always had a suspicion that the policies being crafted by the police union and the city were being crafted in closed-door sessions," he said. "This proves that."

CASUAL CONVERSATIONS

Planning for the meetings appears to have been mostly casual. In an email to (since-retired) PPA counsel Will Aitchison sent Monday, October 18, 2010, city negotiator Jerrell Gaddis acknowledges Aitchison's canceling of a scheduled public session for Friday, October 22, but accepts a lunch at PPA headquarters instead.

"We think that a lunch meeting will be a good opportunity for us to have further bargaining discussions," Gaddis wrote. "Would noontime work for your team, if so, see you then."

That exchange came six days after Steve Herron, the city's lead negotiator, sent an email with the subject line "FW: PPA Bargaining" that tried to plan another lunch meeting that week, for Thursday, October 21. The message was sent before Aitchison cancelled the public meeting that Friday (he wound up having knee surgery)—meaning the parties were looking to meet privately a day before they all planned to gather again publicly.

"We (Yvonne [Deckard], Chief [Mike] Reese, et al.) are not going to be able to meet before Monday, October 18, so we may want to reschedule our lunch meeting to later in that week," Herron wrote in an email to Aitchison, Turner, then-PPA Secretary-Treasurer Dave Dobler, and Gaddis. "Are you available on Thursday, October 21?"

In follow-up emails that day, October 12, the two sides decided to cancel another bargaining session that week in favor of waiting for the (soon-to-be canceled) meeting on October 22. But Herron's confirmation of that decision revealed the two sides had held yet another private meeting.

"So at this point, we are just canceling this week and resuming October 22 (which, frankly, will give us adequate time to do some heavy lifting on the stuff we talked about over lunch on Friday [October 8])," wrote Herron, whose position, labor and employee relations manager, was posted as open on the city's website this month.

Deckard's publicly posted calendars show she was well briefed on the pace of the talks. She met four times with Turner from August 1 through December 1, and attended four lengthy "briefing" sessions on the PPA talks. Two of those sessions were held on days preceding Herron and Gaddis' private lunch meetings with union officials.

CONFLICT, THEN COMPROMISE

Whether the meetings with the PPA, which represents nearly 1,000 cops, would be open at all was no guarantee.

The union's previous contract expired last June, placing renewal talks not only amid the tail end of a recession but also a surge of police shootings and cries for increased accountability.

The city first pressed the issue back in January 2010, just days before a surge in officer-involved shootings that began with the death of Aaron Campbell. But when talks began in March, the PPA, under then-President Scott Westerman, fought to expel reporters and citizens.

But the issue was so politically important that officials took the nuclear option: delaying talks for months until the union caved.

That happened in July, when Turner took over for Westerman, who resigned amid a road-rage scandal. Deckard says Turner quickly approached her in hopes of restarting talks. They hammered out a compromise that would allow that: Half the meetings would be public, on city property, with the other half private. Then, after the first public meeting in September, Turner softened again and decided that all contract talks "will be held publicly."

Deckard hailed the decision, telling the Oregonian, "They realize that having the public there wasn't going to interfere."

A FAST ENDING

That might have been because there was little to interfere with. Because despite Turner's gesture, the talks in practice veered little from the initial deal.

Drug testing was raised in October but scarcely discussed again. Same for oversight. No numbers were traded on the union's pay bump. And there was no major trading on the size of other incentives that made the contract.

Some guessed the two sides merely waited until mediation on December 20 to discuss those issues. But seven days later, a span that included a weekend and Christmas, Turner announced a deal. Initials were added to a tentative agreement December 30. Drafts of the contract obtained by the Mercury show mostly minor changes in language on oversight, drug testing, and compensation in that span.

Deckard said one issue, the two percent pay bump, took shape after talks had begun. A legal ruling stripped the city's ability to manage how cops use compensatory time off granted in lieu of overtime. To "buy back" that ability from the union, the city offered the raise.

One lingering question touches on the involvement of Mayor Sam Adams and other commissioners—and how strongly they pushed the bureau of human resources into insisting on public talks. When talks first fell apart last spring, Adams was involved as the commissioner in charge of human resources. By May, he had also taken over the police bureau from Commissioner Dan Saltzman.

Deckard says she kept the mayor and his fellow commissioners briefed as the contours of the deal emerged, making sure she stuck to what they wanted on oversight and drug testing.

Adams' office, reached Friday, May 27, before the mayor jetted to South America for a climate-change conference, did not comment before press time. Saltzman's office did not return a message Tuesday, May 31, seeking comment about what role, if any, he played in shaping the city's stance on the negotiations.

Jason Renaud, co-founder of the Mental Health Association of Portland and a longtime police watchdog, put the onus on the PPA.

"All contracts that affect the public trust should be negotiated in public," he says. "The process was much better this go-around. But maybe with a different union president, and a different union attorney, the outcome might be different next time."

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