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Phoenix Officials Tweak Labor Contracts to Comply with Court Ruling on Release Time

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Phoenix City Council members this week amended labor agreements with two unions to comply with a court ruling that found the city's longstanding practice of including "release time" in its contracts violated the state's gift clause.

That clause prohibits gifts of public money to people or businesses unless the government body can prove it gets direct and tangible benefit in return.

Under its old release time practice, the city allowed labor leaders to receive their usual salaries, plus overtime, while conducting union work, including representing other employees at disciplinary hearings, lobbying, and campaigning.

That eventually ended after the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative think tank, filed a lawsuit in 2011 claiming the city was giving an unlawful "gift" to the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, PLEA, via the release time.

City of Phoenix's legal experts couldn't prove in court that there was any direct benefit to taxpayers, and the city was forced to end the "release time."

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper put a stop to the practice for the 2010-2012 labor agreements, but when they expired in June 2012, the city "promptly resumed the prohibited release time" in July 2012 for the 2012-2014 labor agreements, according to court records.

City officials are now taking a different approach and agreed on Wednesday to refund the unused "release time" written into labor agreements with PLEA and the Laborers' International Union of North America, LIUNA 777, back to employees in the form of vacation time. Click here for details on the amended labor agreements.

The employees can, in turn, donate the additional vacation time into a bank of hours that union leaders can draw on to continue doing certain union-related work, such as representing employees during disciplinary hearings.

Councilmen Sal DiCiccio, Bill Gates, and Jim Waring voted against the amendment.

Clint Bolick, the Goldwater Institute's vice president for litigation, says that while Phoenix is taking positive steps in its amended agreements, its latest action is a "shell game" that will result in "the same old practices, still funded by taxpayer dollars."

Bolick says that the Goldwater Institute plans to "take action" against the city. "They're giving a windfall of vacation time to police officers, who will in turn be able to gift it to the unions to reinstate release time," Bolick says. He added that the judge who heard the case already rejected the argument that the release time was part of the employees compensation package.

Cindy Bezaury, the city's assistant human resources director and labor relations administrator, says that Phoenix has a contractual obligation with the labor groups which grants release time hours to them that were charged against their total compensation package.

"Those hours were taken out of what employees could have received in other employee benefits," she says.

She adds, responding Bolick's comments, that the 6.5 hours each police officer will receive is hardly a windfall. (The city calculated that 15,799 hours represent the amount of unused release time in the PLEA contract. That, divided among the 2,413 police employees, is how they arrive at the 6.5-hour figure.)

In her ruling, Judge Cooper pointed out that the release time is negotiated in the section of the contract titled, "Rights of Association," and wasn't included as part of the employees' compensation.

"The [contract] does not require the City to increase officer salary if release time is enjoined or removed," the judge writes in her court ruling. "Each item of the MOU is negotiated individually, not as a total package offered to [PLEA] with those members being allowed to divide it how they wished."

Negotiations are underway now with the various unions that represent city employees. But the judge ordered the city not to enter into any more contractual agreements involving release time unless they comply with various orders, including:

  • Stating in clear language the public benefits that will be derived from specific duties the unions will perform
  • Union leaders agreeing to reimburse the city for any union business performed on city time that does not directly benefit the city
  • Figure out a way to determine the value of the union activities which the city decides have public benefit and won't be getting reimbursed.
  • Prohibit release time used for lobbying or political activities adverse to the city, unless approved by the city manager

The new deal reached between the city and PLEA and LIUNA takes effect on Monday.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX.

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