Officials of the Downey Police Officers Assn. threatened an unspecified job action this week after contract talks broke down between the association and the city.
Negotiators for both sides said the 4-month-old talks were deadlocked and the city's chief negotiator suggested calling in a state mediator.
The city, however, has never gone to mediation in a labor dispute and no written procedures exist for summoning a mediator. The lack of written procedures left officials questioning whether the City Council would have to approve the request for a mediator, whose recommendations would be non-binding.
Wish to Work Out Dispute
Meanwhile, one council member and a member of the city's negotiating team said that instead of calling in a mediator, they would rather try and work out the dispute themselves.
Leaders of the police association, however, warned that if the city does not not make some movement toward settlement--either by calling in a mediator or making other contract proposals--the police would consider a job action. Association leaders declined to discuss publicly what job actions might be considered, but they are known to include a strike, a walkout, a work slowdown or "blue flu," in which officers call in sick en masse.
The state Supreme Court ruled in May that public employees have the right to strike, but that police officers can be ordered back to work by a Superior Court judge if it can be proved that the strike constitutes a "substantial and imminent threat" to public health and safety.
The 99-member association has been working without a contract since July 1.
At issue is salary and length of contract. On Monday, the police association rejected what city officials said was their final offer of a two-year contract with a raise amounting to 12%. Association members then made what they called a final offer to accept a one-year contract and a 7% raise, but it was rejected by city negotiators.
"The possibility that some type of job reaction could result probably is a real one," Mark Reid, association negotiator, said in an interview.
"The guys are mad enough to do something. What they'll do I don't know. At a meeting two weeks ago Wednesday they almost walked out right then."
'Heads in the Sand'
Sgt. Mike Hadley, association president, charged that City Council members "have got their heads in the sand" and are ignoring the city's own survey of 11 area cities that showed Downey police officers were next-to-last in salary for veteran officers. The same survey, however, showed city police were sixth out of 11 municipalities in terms of dollars spent on combined salary and benefits for veteran officers.
Nick Nichols, the city's chief negotiator, said he had called for a state mediator because it seemed the logical next step because each side had rejected the other's final offer.
City officials said that talks could still be salvaged, but that a few association "hotheads" were promoting a confrontation with the city.
"Very early on in the negotiations people were making comments that they wanted to fight and a lot of that talk was coming from Mark Reid," said Councilman Randy Barb.
Barb characterized Reid and Hadley as "hotheads" and said that "compared to most police departments, our department in general is more content."
He added: "We're willing to work with" the association to settle the dispute.
Want to Avoid Mediation
And Lee Powell, the city's director of administrative services and a member of the city's negotiating team, added, "We would rather avoid it (summoning a mediator) if we can."
"It isn't that we're holding out money that we're not giving them," said council member Diane Boggs. "We just don't have the money. Property taxes can't go up and the sales tax has stayed the same."
Association officials Hadley and Reid also charged that during negotiations, council members threatened to abolish the city police department and contract with the county sheriff's office for police protection. The threats were not made in face-to-face discussions but were relayed by "good sources," Hadley and Reid said, declining to identify the sources.
Council members Boggs, Barb, James Santangelo and Mayor Bob Davila denied making such threats, although Santangelo confirmed that such a proposal had been discussed in a private council session. Boggs said that it had been brought up during a council meeting, but that it was "never seriously discussed." The other council member, Robert Cormack, could not be reached for comment.
The City Charter calls for a municipal police force. To contract with the sheriff's department, city residents would have to vote to amend the charter by a 2-1 margin.
The city survey of police salaries and benefits showed that city police officers with 10 years of experience earn $31,248 a year in salary and an additional $8,388 for holiday pay and dental, medical, life insurance and retirement benefits, said Jeff Allred, city personnel director.
In the survey of 11 cities of between 75,000 and 100,000 population, city police were 10th in salary but sixth in combined salary and benefits of $39,636.
In the combined category, the survey showed Santa Monica first, at $43,188, with $35,424 in salary and $7,764 in benefits; and Buena Park last, with $35,208, including $29,364 in salary and $5,844 in benefits.
The city's proposed contract offering a 12% raise over two years would have given officers with 10 years of experience $3,750 more annually, boosting them to $34,998 a year. The average length of service for department members is 12 years, Allred said.