No On Prop 200

Reject The Disturbing 'Meet And Confer' Initiative

By Dave Devine

LIKE A BRIGHTLY wrapped gift under the Christmas tree, Proposition 200 on the city ballot looks very inviting. Entitled "Meet and Confer," it's the brainchild of the Tucson Police Officers Association, the labor union representing city cops. According to this group, the initiative offers "Tucson taxpayers two important new rights; the right to vote on tax increases before the increase can take effect, and the right to meet with city officials and demand effective measures to fight crime."

But in truth, the initiative doesn't do either of these things. The City Council will still have the power to pass tax increases without voter approval; and the public has always been able to push for more public safety efforts. Instead, the initiative is an attempt to increase police officers' salaries while politicizing the city's work force. In addition, it could result in removing public oversight of police actions.

Currents Tucson cops ought to make more money. A 1994 survey of various Arizona public safety agencies showed Tucson officers' pay was ranked 14th out of 18 for average salary, behind Casa Grande, Flagstaff and Yuma. The next year's results revealed the average Tucson police recruit's pay was the 11th lowest of the surveyed agencies, lower than both the Pima County Sheriff's Department and Arizona State University.

If passed, the "Meet and Confer" initiative would revise how police officers'--and all other city employees'--salaries are determined. With the current system, the city staff recommends salary levels, and the City Council takes action. There's also a procedure for appeals before the Council makes a final decision.

Under the initiative, labor unions representatives would face city management in meetings open to the public. If they can't agree on pay levels, a mediator may be employed. If a solution still isn't reached, a "fact finder" could be brought in. If there were still disagreement, the issue would be sent to the voters for a decision.

Earlier this year, the City Council turned down a request to raise police officers' salaries by 6 percent more than the across-the-board increase given to all city employees. Had the "Meet and Confer" initiative been in place, that request could have eventually ended up on the ballot. (The $500,000 or so it would cost to hold that special election might be one of the negotiating points in the salary-setting process.)

The procedure of having the voters be the ultimate decision-makers about salaries for city employees has been in place for years in some Texas communities. Benny Davis, Galveston's personnel director, says the process has changed the way negotiations are conducted there. Both sides, he indicated, have to think harder about their positions and be more serious before declaring their opening offers. Only once in the mid-1980s did Galveston voters finally decide the issue.

According to private attorney Jim McNutt, El Paso's chief negotiator, that city has had a similar process in place for about a dozen years. He agrees the required procedures changed the negotiation process. "It caused both sides to focus on the big issues," he said. "It makes the parties work harder during the mediation phase." El Paso voters decided the issue only once, 10 years ago. According to McNutt, the police officers' position was "soundly defeated."

Former Tucson Mayor Tom Volgy sees serious problems with the initiative. One is the City Council's loss of decision-making power. "People are elected to do some things," Volgy says, and setting city-employee salaries is one of those. If the "Meet and Confer" trend continues, he wonders, "Will we end up doing everything by initiative?"

In addition to establishing a new salary-setting procedure, Proposition 200 also permits active political participation by city employees, which is specifically prohibited now. Employees can vote in city elections, but they can't financially contribute to City Council campaigns or solicit funds from others.

Volgy says the initiative proposal reverses reforms which were put in place to protect government employees from overt political pressure. Incumbents could threaten to withhold promotions or even to eliminate the jobs of government employees who didn't assist with re-election campaigns. "To go back to that system," Volgy said, "would be pretty dangerous."

Another potential downside to politicizing the city workforce could produce the opposite result: Candidates for the City Council may become beholden to city employees and labor unions who help get them elected. Just look at the Tucson Unified School District, where employees decide who their elected bosses will be by funding and working campaigns.

Passage of the initiative would also throw into question the ability to have public oversight of police actions. The initiative states, "Civilian review of police disciplinary matters is a mandatory subject" for negotiations between police officers and city officials. Could that mean if the city government forbids public involvement in reviewing police actions, the cops might ask for less of a pay increase?

That provision alone is enough to oppose this initiative. The public must have the right to review police actions. If we don't, we'll have two sets of standards, one for citizens, the other for cops.

While Tucson police officers deserve a pay raise, the "Meet and Confer" initiative goes too far in politicizing the city work force while potentially prohibiting public oversight of police conduct. "Meet and Confer" might have been acceptable, "Politicize and Hide" is not. TW

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