Seattle's police union claimed a major victory Thursday after learning a state labor examiner ruled that the city of Seattle wrongly gave...

Seattle’s police union claimed a major victory Thursday after learning a state labor examiner ruled that the city of Seattle wrongly gave a citizen review board officers’ unredacted disciplinary files.

The city should have negotiated the issue with the union, the state ruled.

The ruling says the city unilaterally implemented changes by giving access to unredacted files to the citizen review board that examines closed police-discipline cases. The city’s actions violated state law because officials refused to bargain with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild and therefore “interfered with employee rights.”

“We are elated by the decision and hope this sends a clear message to the City Council that the way you change police officers’ contract is at the bargaining table — and not by enacting ordinances,” said Rich O’Neill, president of the guild, which represents 1,181 officers, sergeants and detectives.

The mayor’s office is now “reviewing the decision and considering our options,” said Marty McOmber, a spokesman for Mayor Greg Nickels. But earlier this month, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the ruling “will be a defining moment for police accountability in terms of what has to be bargained and what is a management right.”

The decision comes less than a week before an expert panel appointed by the mayor is expected to report back with recommendations for improving the police disciplinary system. It also comes in the midst of protracted contract talks between the city and guild.

In May 2006, the City Council unanimously passed the ordinance allowing members of a citizen review board access to unredacted police-discipline files. It went into effect last spring.

Within days of the ordinance’s passage, the police union filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission, the state agency responsible for resolving disputes between public employers and their employees. The guild argued that any changes to police discipline had to be negotiated.

While the matter of unredacted files was being considered by the state labor board, the City Council passed another ordinance in September, this one requiring Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to provide written explanations when he disagrees with disciplinary recommendations by the civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which investigates allegations of police misconduct.

That ordinance went into effect Jan. 1. O’Neill said the police guild expects to file another complaint with the state board on the written-explanations ordinance.

Both the unredacted-files ordinance and the law requiring written explanations from the chief were spearheaded by City Councilmember Nick Licata. He could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

But Peter Holmes, chairman of the OPA Review Board, said he was “a little disappointed” by the examiner’s ruling but hopes the city appeals.

“It doesn’t answer the ultimate question of why this [the unredacted-files issue] is a mandatory subject of bargaining,” Holmes said. “There was no real analysis there. … It was one examiner who misunderstood the case and misunderstood the law.”

The examiner’s ruling orders the city and guild to negotiate the issue and enter into arbitration if no agreement is reached by the end of March.

In the meantime, the OPA Review Board must return all unredacted files to the OPA and purge any records based on those files. The city also is required to post notices for 60 days in all police-officer work areas stating that the city “unlawfully interfered with employee rights and failed to negotiate in good faith” by adopting and implementing the ordinance.

Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com