BACK IN MARCH, Mayor Charlie Hales figured he'd reached a pretty clear compromise with the Portland Police Association (PPA) over the contours of pending contract talks between the city and the union, and whether the public would be allowed to attend.
Though it meant dropping a campaign promise, Hales' office told the Mercury on March 28 that the mayor had responsibly decided to split the baby and avoid what could've been a nasty fight: meetings held on city property would be public, meetings on union property would be private. PPA President Daryl Turner even signaled his assent, telling the Mercury the arrangement seemed "fair" ["Shadows and Light," News, April 3].
But despite all that give, and with little take to show for it, Hales has wound up with that fight all the same.
Late Friday, July 26—a month after the city began working to enforce its deal, at a bargaining meeting in June—the rank-and-file police union filed an unfair labor practice complaint over Hales' stance, accusing the city of negotiating in bad faith. A day earlier, Turner had quietly posted a short essay on his union's online newsletter, Rap Sheet, calling for "a strict policy of confidentiality."
"To negotiate this contract in front of the media and the court of public opinion would bring these negotiations to a screeching halt," Turner wrote.
This hardball from the union comes at a tender time for the city and the PPA, and it could be a play to slow talks down in the face of federal police reform. According to the union's complaint, the meeting in June was the first between the two since a March 27 meeting the day before Hales' office confirmed his compromise on public access. The two had spent those weeks in mediation over how reform might affect the PPA's contract—a process that fell apart, paving the way for a trial next summer.
The complaint says neither side, despite meeting five times through late June, ever firmly agreed on public access. Emails attached to the complaint show the city's lead negotiator, Jerrell Gaddis, acknowledging to the PPA's counsel, Anil Karia, that the city lacked a legal justification for its stance.
Meanwhile, Hales has received the blessing of the Oregonian's editorial board. He was predictably apoplectic Friday in the aftermath of the union's complaint.
"The PPA is trying to completely shut out the public and insist on backroom bargaining at the very time transparency is most needed," Hales said in a statement supplied by his chief of staff, Gail Shibley. "The public won't stand for that... For the bureau to change, the PPA bargaining agreement needs to change. The public and the US Department of Justice are appropriately looking over our shoulder, and Portlanders are simply not going to stand for negotiations that are completely closed."
The city, however, might have seen this coming. In May, in something of a role reversal, TriMet won a circuit court ruling against a claim by its operators union that contract talks, unless both sides agree otherwise, are public meetings covered by the state's public meetings law. The city attorney's office, during a similar impasse with the PPA in 2010, also considered that question in depth.
"Because the negotiating team is not a governing body nor does it make recommendations to a governing body," says a memo written by Lory Kraut, "they are not subject to the Public Meetings Law."