Palmetto moves forward with police union agreement

nwilliams@bradenton.comDecember 19, 2012 

PALMETTO -- The Palmetto City Commission voted Tuesday to authorize the draft of the city's first collective bargaining agreement with its police department, though portions of the pact have upset some police officers.

The resolution, which will be presented to the commission at its next meeting on Jan. 7, will put into policy the police department's hourly work schedule, take-home vehicle procedures and appeal process for disciplinary action.

For more than a year, the city and the department's union representative -- the Southwest Florida Police Benevolent Association -- failed to come to an agreement regarding those issues, with the larger issue being the legal standard for grievances after disciplinary action.

The commission voted unanimously Tuesday to side with the city's proposal of having an "at-will" policy regarding discharges, meaning officers would be disciplined or terminated at the discretion of the city. The union proposed a "just cause" policy, which would force the city to prove its employees were engaged in any alleged misconduct.

Palmetto police officers in attendance were visibly upset and one officer immediately walked out of the board room when the vote was made.

"I was very disappointed with that outcome," said Joe Rogers, a four-year detective with the Palmetto Police Department.

The city's current policy states a city employee, including officers, who believes they were disciplined without cause may appeal through city procedures. But with a bargaining agreement in place that includes "at-will" disciplinary management in their contract, officers feel unprotected.

"We just went backwards," Rogers said.

The union's attorney, Diane Morton, and Rogers said the "just cause" clause was a small request considering the union did not ask for monetary increases.

"Right now you can start as a rookie in the city in Bradenton, right out of training in a patrol car, and make more than I do," Rogers said.

What the officers want, Rogers said, is a safeguard.

"We want to be protected from being unfairly treated," he said.

Palmetto Mayor Shirley Bryant, who did not vote on the agreement, argued a "just cause" policy would cost the city more money.

"'Just cause,' by logic, will increase the standards and amount in litigation cost," she said.

Attorney James Crosland, who represented the city, said "just cause" litigation could cost up to $40,000 per case.

"The 'just cause' standard is a trap that gives a union the ability to protect people," he said.

In October, a special magistrate provided by Florida Public Employees Relations Commission recommended the agreement include the union's proposal and not the city's. The city ultimately rejected the magistrate's opinion.

"I would ask you to keep in mind a magistrate can come in and know things, and not know some things," Bryant told the commissioners. "You have the public interest in your hands."

A policy on take-home vehicles simply puts into writing a common practice by the department. Ward 3 commissioner Brian Williams said take-home vehicle was approved by the board of commissioners about nine years ago, but was not put in writing.

Under the adopted policy, officers will be permitted to take home marked vehicles under the discretion of the chief of police, free of charge within six miles of the city limits. Between six and 15 miles outside the city limits, officers will have to reimburse the city $25 per pay period. Anything over 15 miles will require a $50 reimbursement.

The hourly work schedule was also an unwritten policy at the department. In the newly formed agreement, officers will be paid for an 86-hour schedule over 14 days. Any time worked over 86 hours, officers will be paid a day and half in overtime.

Nick Williams, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams

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