ON THE STUMP last spring, Charlie Hales joined his two main rivals in lamenting the city's broken promise to hold all contract negotiations with the Portland Police Association (PPA) in public.
"The reason is not just that it's your money," Hales said at a North Portland candidates forum focused on police accountability. "It's that these issues are very important at a policy level as well. It's sad that commitment was made but not kept. We need to restore the credibility of this office."
But now that Hales is mayor, he's charting a very different course in the face of what he argues is an unbending political reality. Talks with the PPA—the city's rank-and-file police union, long seen by advocates as a boulder blocking reform—will remain only partly public.
As the Mercury first reported on Thursday, March 28, at least half the meetings will be held away from city property, at the PPA's headquarters or some other private location. The compromise raises the strong possibility that pressing issues like pay, use of force, and discipline will all wind up discussed behind closed doors.
Hales in an interview on Friday, March 29, insisted his personal wish was for all discussions to stay public, happening "in a glass cube, with mics on, and in the light of day." But with a "perfect storm" of conflicts looming, he says—including federal reforms of police use of force and discipline, touchy discussions over subjects like overtime and layoffs, and the backdrop of pension-reform plotting in Salem—he didn't want to spend time haggling with the PPA over access.
Hales has also promised to allow "community review" of the contract after it's negotiated but before the council makes it official.
"I'm less concerned with how the negotiations look and more concerned about the outcome," Hales says. "What matters is the agreement produced and does that agreement pass the acid test of a bureau that's credible with the public and is spending its money wisely and where we have a good work environment for our officers."
Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman, who attended every public meeting during the last round of contract negotiations, welcomed the chance for review. But he said he was disappointed some meetings would stay off limits—giving the public an incomplete glimpse at the full scope of contract talks.
"It's up to the city to make sure that doesn't happen," Handelman says. "It's not going to be the PPA."
The city's compromise with the PPA closely resembles an arrangement reached in 2010, the last time the two sides met across the bargaining table. That winter, the city had initially demanded that all meetings be held in public. But the union balked, filing a formal labor grievance—coming around to the public-private split later that year only after a contentious leadership change.
Then in a final burst of drama, after the first few public meetings, PPA President Daryl Turner and former Human Resources Director Yvonne Deckard magnanimously declared that all future sessions would be public after all. But as the Mercury exclusively reported, that announcement turned out to be political theater ["Behind Closed Doors," News, June 2, 2011].
In a workaround embraced by city labor negotiators, much of the contract was still hashed out privately at PPA offices and at nearby hotels, and also over the phone and via email. And after only five of the public sessions, all talks eventually headed into private mediation.
Deckard, in 2011, claimed a distinction between official meetings and unofficial meetings.
That seeming bait-and-switch was clearly on the minds of advocates with the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform (AMA) who asked mayoral candidates, last year, about the story and their commitment to public negotiations.
Eileen Brady said keeping the talks open was a "simple question." Jefferson Smith said he'd be willing to bring city commissioners to bargaining sessions, to properly make them public meetings.
Hales, however, now says his own harsh comments on "credibility" were more about the city, under former Mayor Sam Adams, breaking a promise. He says he's not willing to make that promise in the first place.
"I'd rather people know that right up front," he said, "and not deceive people by saying, 'They're all open,' and have people actually meeting in a bar to work it out. Let's not play games with the public."
Turner, the PPA president, is calling the arrangement a "fair compromise." But he also said, as of last week, that he hadn't spoken personally with the mayor.
"That's what they say. We haven't really talked about it among ourselves and decided what we're going to do," Turner at first told the Mercury.
Later, he signaled his assent: "When we have it at the PPA, whether it be at our office or somewhere else, we'd have them in private. I don't think there's going to be any reason to suspect there's some hidden agenda. It worked fine last time, and I don't see any reason to deviate."
As a demonstration of how quickly things are moving, Hales' office says a schedule of public meetings could be released as soon as this week. The city's three-year contract with the PPA expires this summer, just after Portland City Council is supposed to pass a budget.
Hales says those contract talks will happen at the same time as the city, the PPA, and the AMA coalition work through a proposed US Department of Justice settlement that found Portland cops using unconstitutional levels of force against the mentally ill.
The city and union are awaiting a state board's decision on whether proposed changes to bureau policies on use of force and Tasers might be exempt from negotiations.
Both sides have held minor discussions so far over ground rules. Baruti Artharee, Hales' public safety director, said the city and the union have yet to exchange contract proposals.
Last time, the city paid dearly in pay hikes and benefit bumps worth millions for, essentially, two major policy tradeoffs: random drug testing and the union's agreement to stop challenging the city's Police Review Board.
Hales, however, won't discuss his goals.
"Not yet," he says.