Doug Brown

The City of Portland will be hiring an outside lawyer to help with upcoming contract negotiations with the Portland Police Association (PPA), the Portland's police union for rank-and-file officers.

On Wednesday, Portland City Council approved $250,000 of extra city budget dollars to pay for “counsel to be available for outside legal counsel for labor negotiations."

According to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, this chunk of money is specifically earmarked for an attorney that will help hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement with the PPA. The police union’s current four-year contract is set to expire in June 2020, and negotiations between PPA and City of Portland are expected to begin as soon as January 2020.

While the city has yet to announce which specific attorney it plans to hire, Wheeler’s office has confirmed it won’t be anyone from the Bullard Law firm. In June, Bullard Law—a firm notorious for representing anti-union organizations—sent a proposal to city commissioners (later obtained by Willamette Week) offering the firm’s legal help on the PPA negotiations for $250,000 to $350,000. The city has declined this offer.

In the recent past, the city’s largely relied on its internal labor relations team and city attorneys to lead PPA negotiations. But an outside hire isn’t necessarily an indictment on the city’s own legal team.

“I believe we have the best law firm in the city working at the City of Portland,” says Commissioner Nick Fish. “But there are a small number of people whose specialty is in public sector labor contracts. The benefit of outside counsel is having a subject member expert working with us to offer strategic guidance. I think that’s a plus.”

City Attorney Tracy Reeve agrees.

“Our labor and employment attorneys are extremely capable and will be integrally involved in the bargaining process,” writes Reeve in an email to the Mercury. “Nonetheless, the reality is that we are necessarily generalists who represent all City bureaus and carry extremely heavy workloads.”

Hiring an outside attorney, Reeve says, will ensure that Portland walks away with a contract “that serves the interest and welfare of the public and our officers.”

This decision is one of many being made by City Council—for now, behind closed doors—in hopes of improving the outcomes of the historically contentious contract negotiations.

The last time PPA renewed its bargaining agreement in 2016, negotiations ended with few wins for the city—and with cops forcefully removing dozens of protesters from City Hall. The deal was widely criticized for being weak on police accountability. Portlanders also expressed anger over the dearth of community engagement prior to contract negotiations, and the overall opaqueness of the closed-door meetings.

Dan Handelman with Portland Copwatch says he's encouraged that the city's seeking outside legal counsel this time around. He says the idea of having the same city attorneys who represent police officers in court working against them at the bargaining table poses a conflict of interest.

"It's good to have someone who is not in a position where they represent both the police and the city," Handelman says.

City Council will take the next few months to finalize its strategy—with the help of an expert attorney—and consider changing parts of the negotiation process to improve the public’s frayed trust.

It’s still unclear which areas the city will want to tweak in the new contract—or what the PPA will be fighting for. A coalition of local civil rights groups, however, have already put forward a few suggestions.

Fish believes the city won’t need all $250,000 to retain a lawyer who specializes in public sector work. But City Council’s unanimous approval of the funds was a way to “put a marker down” to show the city is taking the process seriously.

Fish and Commissioner Amanda Fritz are the only currently members of City Council who were at the bargaining table for the 2016 contract negotiations. At the time, activist group Don't Shoot Portland considered petitioning to recall both officials for supporting the final PPA contract.

“These negotiations are going to be very high profile,” Fish says. “We’re committed to negotiating a fair contract on behalf of the community.”