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Tacoma: State commission rules city committed unfair labor practice when ordering police officers to reimburse pay earned during charity basketball games

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Oct. 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
October 17, 2012 5:30 pm

A state commission has affirmed its ruling that the City of Tacoma violated collective bargaining rules with Tacoma’s police union when it ordered a dozen officers to repay wages they earned while playing in on-duty basketball games for charity in 2005, 2008 and 2009.

Washington’s Public Employees Relations Commission found the city committed an unfair labor practice because it “sought to negotiate repayment plans directly with employees to repay salary earned while playing the game…”

Such “direct dealing” – when an employer negotiates an action with a represented employee without the union’s knowledge – violates mandatory collective bargaining provisions, the commission found.

Tacoma now must restore the time-off or pay it docked from a dozen officers to recoup the amount in wages earned while playing in the games. With 12 percent compounded interest, the city’s reimbursements to the officers are valued at about $9,400.

“We should have this resolved by next week,” John Dryer, the city’s labor relations manager, told Tacoma’s City Council Tuesday.

Initially issued in June, the ruling was upheld in August after various appeals.  The findings came to light Tuesday, when Dryer read aloud a required public notice about the findings at Tuesday’s council meeting.

The commission’s findings and remedies appear to put to rest an embarrassing episode for the department that in part was kept alive by the labor dispute’s slow resolution.

Known as the “Hilltop Challenge,” the annual charity basketball game pitted city police officers against firefighters as part of a community outreach effort. The game, which dated to 2005, also raised money for the Hilltop Action Coalition, a nonprofit community group.

Following a whistle-blower’s complaint and news reports in 2009 about officers playing while on the city’s dime, Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell issued a directive forbidding officers from being paid to participate in charitable events.

The department also launched an internal investigation. It found no wrongdoing by participating officers, but determined 12 had been paid $4,224 – a full day’s wages each – for playing in the 2009 game. The officers also had their uniforms paid for with $327 in department money.  Expenses incurred for earlier games dating to 2005 totaled about $4,983.

The probe also found department decision-makers shouldn’t have approved pay for the officers. Lt. Corey Darlington, who lobbied for the payments, and Assistant Chief Bob Sheehan, who authorized them, received one-day suspensions each for their parts.

Ramsdell also ordered reimbursements from officers who participated in games in 2005, 2008 and 2009. Eleven officers had their time-off banks reduced by four to 20 hours, while another officer opted to return $726 to the city, the police union reported.

In April 2010, Tacoma Police Union Local 6 filed a complaint with the PERC that, among other things, claimed the city hadn’t properly notified union officials to negotiate the pay reductions.

“They should have contacted us,” said Det. Terry Krause, the union’s president. “If you take wages away from somebody, that’s discipline. And when you discipline someone, you have to go through the disciplinary process.”

Deputy City Attorney Michael Smith said Wednesday the city believes it did give the union proper notice, but the commission found otherwise.

“We absolutely still believe that paying (officers) to play in a game for charity was wrong,” Smith added. “This ruling has nothing to do with that. This is about the way the city sought to recoup the money.”

While the union is satisfied with the end result, Krause said the path to get there was regrettable.

“I don’t think anyone wins when it takes so long to resolve something like this,” he said. “So much time has gone by now, it’s like opening old wounds.”

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