The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) has reached a tentative agreement with the city on a four-year contract that would give officers cost-of-living wage increases while leaving the door open to future negotiations as reforms to the Police Department continue under a federal settlement agreement, the union’s president announced Tuesday.
The “reopen” provision of the tentative deal is also expected to be used to revisit the issue of whether the city should keep paying the salary of the union president, Sgt. Rich O’Neill.
O’Neill, a 33-year veteran who has led the 1,250-member union since 2006, announced the tentative agreement at an invitation-only news conference at union headquarters. He said the guild’s 14-member board voted unanimously Tuesday to send the contract to the union membership for a vote. Mail-in ballots will be counted May 22.
The tentative contract covers the period from 2011 through 2014. The officers union has been working without a contract since the previous one expired in 2010.
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In announcing the tentative deal, O’Neill also said SPOG will drop a lawsuit, filed with the Seattle Police Management Association in March, seeking protection of their collective-bargaining rights in response to police reforms mandated by a court-imposed agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lt. Eric Sano, president of the management association, said Tuesday his union will also drop its suit.
In a statement on the tentative agreement, Mayor Mike McGinn said, “We have reached an important milestone in our work to form a new contract with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild. My priorities during this work were to ensure that a new contract would support public safety in Seattle, recognize city budget realities and support our work to fully implement the reforms enshrined in our settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. I am pleased that our tentative agreement has achieved all three of these basic priorities.”
The contract negotiations had dragged on for nearly three years, but the talks seemingly picked up speed in recent weeks since Assistant Chief Jim Pugel — a police representative on the city’s negotiating team — was chosen as interim chief to replace John Diaz, who is retiring from the department.
While O’Neill said it is “hard to say what turned the tide,” he added that Pugel “did provide, near the end, some real … push.”
O’Neill said morale has been low among the city’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants due to the drawn-out negotiations, coupled with the Department of Justice investigation that led to the settlement agreement to address a federal finding that officers too often resort to excessive force.
“I think this will be a boost in the arm … and I think the officers’ morale will improve,” he said.
Bruce Harrell, the chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, also voiced his hope that a new contract will improve officer morale.
“The contract was long overdue. Morale of the Seattle Police Department is critical to the success of our city and morale is at an all-time low,” Harrell said. “I think this (contract) will start the process of improvement. This hopefully will include new leadership of the department.”
O’Neill declined to say how much the cost-of-living increase will be until he meets with SPOG members. Under the last contract, Seattle officers and sergeants went from being among the lowest-paid in the state to the top paid — and the salary boost was negotiated in return for the union’s acceptance of 29 police reforms recommended by a blue-ribbon task force assembled by former Mayor Greg Nickels.
O’Neill said Tuesday the cost-of-living increases will maintain Seattle officers’ position as the top-paid cops in the state. But O’Neill, who has long lobbied to increase the number of officers and sergeants on the streets, said the tentative contract does not include any plans to boost staffing levels.
The agreement does, however, include a provision to “reopen” the contract so the city and guild can negotiate changes in officers’ working conditions — specifically changes in regard to discipline — that arise as reforms to the department move forward, O’Neill said.
No specifics have been brought to the table yet.
“We’re waiting for their call, so to speak,” said O’Neill, noting that the settlement agreement doesn’t lay out details for reform and is “kind of an evolving document.”
The question of who pays the guild president’s salary is also a topic that can be reopened at a later date, O’Neill said.
Contract negotiations between the city and SPOG had reportedly splintered over a proposal that the city no longer pay the salary and benefits of the union president. Currently, the city pays O’Neill $125,000 in salary and benefits under the terms of the old 2008 contract while he serves full time as the union’s leader.
Under previous contracts, the union paid the president’s salary, according to O’Neill.
No other union head representing city employees receives a full-time city salary.
“I think we can come to an agreement. I don’t think it’s a sticking issue,” said O’Neill, adding that the conversation surrounding the president’s salary has been overblown.
McGinn’s spokesman, Aaron Pickus, said, “while the agreement does not immediately resolve the president’s salary issue, it provides a clear path to settle this issue in the near term while preserving the value of reaching closure on the overall contract.”
During a mayoral debate Monday night, all eight candidates for mayor — including McGinn, Harrell and City Council member Tim Burgess — said no when asked if the city should continue to pay the salary of the police union’s president.
Seattle Times staff reporters Steve Miletich and Lynn Thompson contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org