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Judicial Watch vs. Goldwater Institute: Conservative Think Tanks Clash Over Taxpayer-Funded Police Union Work

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A legal battle over whether Phoenix police union leaders should be able to perform union-related duties while collecting their taxpayer-funded salaries has pitted two uber-conservative groups -- Goldwater Institute and Judicial Watch -- against each other.

At the crux of the debate is Goldwater's contention that a municipal government paying union bosses to conduct union duties, which includes lobbying, representing employees in disciplinary hearings and negotiating employment contracts, violates the Arizona Constitution's gift clause.

Not so, says Judicial Watch, a D.C.-based conservative think tank.

Rather, Judicial Watch argues that the money used to cover the union leaders' salaries comes out of the police officer's total compensation package. That is, each cop gives up about $320 a year to fund those positions.

A couple of Phoenix residents (represented by Phoenix-based Goldwater) filed a lawsuit against the City of Phoenix in December 2011 to end that practice. And Goldwater is taken aback that its compadres at Judicial Watch aren't cheering from the sidelines.

Instead, Judicial Watch announced this week that it asked Maricopa County Superior Court to allow five Phoenix police officers to intervene in a lawsuit challenging what is referred to as "release time" for those unions leaders.

Clint Bolick -- director of litigation at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute -- noted in a blog that, in Phoenix, "release time provisions in contracts with its seven government worker unions cost taxpayers $4 million per year, according to a Goldwater Institute investigation released last year."

Bolick is critical of Judicial Watch for stepping in Goldwater's way when the D.C. think tank has spoken out against a similar practice in Florida.

"Judicial Watch condemned Miami-Dade County, Florida Mayor Carlos Alvarez for allowing 'public transit workers to be excused from their regular duties while still collecting taxpayer salaries.' " Bolick writes. "Among Judicial Watch's bill of particulars against the mayor was the '1,300 union police officers who make over $100,000 at the department Alvarez worked in and headed for years.' Outrageous, said Judicial Watch."

The reason for this drastic change of course, Bolick argues, appears to be Mark Spencer.

Remember him? The Phoenix cop who was president of the Phoenix Police Law Enforcement Association?

Spencer spent his days in the union hall, dealing with employee issues and pushing for local police to play a greater role in enforcing federal immigration laws all the while getting his regular cop salary.

Spencer retired from the department earlier this year, and now the far-right of center guy is the Southwest Project Coordinator for Judicial Watch.

Spencer contends that it isn't about him. Rather, it's about the principle of allowing cops the freedom to decide how to use the money allocated to them. And the situation in Florida?

It's completely different, he says.

In that 2011 scenario, the Florida mayor formed a "special 'education' committee" which excused public transit employees from their regular work day to campaign against a recall election he was facing.

Florida taxpayers had to shell out extra money to cover the campaigning employees' regular jobs. In Phoenix, however, the cops are already getting a certain pot of money, and they're choosing to take part of their paycheck to pay for union reps, Spencer tells New Times.

Bolick says he sees no difference.

He maintains that cops should be able to use their money to pay for that union representation -- once they get it in their paychecks, that is. The money shouldn't be funneled directly from the city to the union, which is a private, third-party entity, he says.

"These are people who were hired by the City of Phoenix for law enforcement. And, this is diverting police officers from the job they were assigned to do, taking them off the street and putting the officer under the control of the union," he says. "They should be riding a patrol car not a union desk."

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