Judge Won’t Stop Secret Negotiations Over New Phoenix Police Contract

Poder in Action held a press conference outside Phoenix City Hall on March 1 to announce a new lawsuit over police contract negotiations.
Poder in Action held a press conference outside Phoenix City Hall on March 1 to announce a new lawsuit over police contract negotiations. Katya Schwenk
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge has ruled that the city of Phoenix and the union that represents its police officers can continue negotiations over a new contract in secret.

The ruling on Tuesday stems from a lawsuit filed March 1 by Poder in Action, a local organization that advocates around policing issues in Phoenix. The group sued the city after the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association failed to provide a draft of its contract proposals for public comment — breaking long-standing tradition and violating Phoenix city code.

Since December, the city and the police union have been negotiating a new contract, and the city has declined to make public any draft contract proposals.

In its lawsuit, Poder in Action requested that a judge intervene to prevent contract negotiations from moving forward until the public had a chance to comment on the union's initial proposal. The new contract is significant as it will set wages and govern processes around discipline and accountability within the embattled police agency, attorneys for the group argued.

But Judge Timothy Ryan declined to take action, explaining in his ruling that since negotiations between the police union and the city are nearly completed, it was too late to start over.

Ryan wrote in the ruling that had the lawsuit been filed earlier, he would have been open to intervention. But instead, "the negotiations continued, and PLEA members ratified the [memorandum of understanding], which is now set for public comment on the City Council agenda for April 13, 2023," he wrote.

"Even though the judge did not rule in our favor, we're still viewing this as a win," Isabel Garcia, a community safety strategist with Poder in Action, told Phoenix New Times on Friday. Ryan left the door open for legal action should PLEA fail to provide the contract the next time negotiations start, she explained.

"We have sent a strong message to the city that they cannot do this again," Garcia said.

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The union for Phoenix police officers refused to publicly release its proposal for a new contract with the city.
Matt Hennie

‘Behind Closed Doors’

At a hearing on March 30, attorneys for Poder in Action argued that the city is ignoring its own laws and the ongoing contract negotiations should be halted.

"What the city is trying to do is conduct one of the most important negotiations in the city behind closed doors and out of public view," said Heather Hamel, an attorney with the People's Law Firm. The fact that the city allowed negotiations to move forward without public comment demonstrated "an abject refusal to abide by its own laws."

City code requires that all labor unions provide a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) — a proposal for a contract — to the city and the public before negotiations begin. Then, the public is given a chance to comment on the proposals.

For at least the past decade, PLEA had submitted a draft contract proposal before negotiations, according to a review by Phoenix New Times. But in December, as the union began preparations for negotiations, it submitted only a short letter to the city indicating that it was prepared to start negotiations. None of the four other unions seeking new contracts with the city submitted draft proposals, either.

The city then held a meeting for public comment on the contracts — but provided no documents for speakers to comment on.

"Being able to see the draft MOU really gives us and the public an opportunity to see what PLEA is fighting for, what they're advocating for," Garcia said. In the past, some proposed provisions of the contract drew outcry, such as a proposal in 2018 that would have shielded officers from anonymous complaints. That clause was cut from the final contract after negotiations.

PLEA has argued that it was often one of the only labor unions to submit a proposed contract at all, and that the other unions don't receive the same scrutiny.

Yet Poder in Action has argued that the police union's contract is deserving of greater scrutiny, given the amount of money that the city funnels to the police department, which has an $850 million budget, and the ongoing federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into a pattern of misconduct at the agency.

"Sworn police officers are the only city employees who have the authority to arrest people and to use force, including deadly force," Garcia said.

The city argued at the March 30 hearing that it was PLEA, not the city, that was responsible for not providing a draft contract.

"The undisputed evidence shows the city performed all its obligations," Stephen Coleman, an attorney for the city, said at the hearing. "The plaintiffs inexplicably sued the city of Phoenix, the party that’s done nothing wrong."

Yet the city has refused to release any documents relating to the ongoing negotiations, Hamel noted.

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, submitted a records request for any draft MOU that the city received from PLEA. After the city refused to provide the documents, the Goldwater Institute sued on March 1 to obtain them. That lawsuit is still pending. Joe Seyton, communications manager for the Goldwater Institute, told New Times in an email that the institute expected a decision in the case in the next several weeks.

Since the judge declined to halt the negotiations, the contract process continues to move forward. On April 13, the public will get its first glimpse at the union contract. The public will be allowed to comment on the contract on April 19. But by then, city staff and the union will have agreed on the contract and changes are less likely, Poder in Action has contended.

"After negotiations close, the contract does not change," Garcia said. "Historically, we've seen that even if there is public comment, the council is going to vote on this contract the way it's written. That's what we're expecting."
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk

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