Police “blindsided” by ordinance making union membership optional

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – For the second time in as many months, Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry vetoed an ordinance passed by Fort Wayne City Council.

“It’s unfortunate that Council amended an ordinance that had been tabled for weeks rather than going through the process of introduction, discussion and passage,” the mayor said in a statement distributed to media. “This approach did not allow taxpayers and public safety personnel, particularly the Fort Wayne Police Department, the opportunity to gain a full understanding of the impact of Council’s decision.”

At the July 8 meeting, Fort Wayne Councilman Mitch Harper (R-4th District) introduced changes to a bill that would have repealed collective bargaining for the public safety unions. Councilman John Crawford (R-At-Large) originally introduced that proposal in May and it had been tabled. Harper changed it to take out doing away with collective bargaining and added the optional union membership.

“It protects all city employees. It protects those who choose to join a union from indiscriminate employment dismissal or harassment and it protects those who choose not to join a union,” Harper said.

Click here to read more about the ordinance. 

To help get its new contract passed, the firefighters’ union created a letter of agreement with the council and the mayor saying it would not recognize the part of its contract that mandates union membership.

“Council members represented they wouldn’t support our contract if we had compulsory union dues included in that,” Jeremy Bush, the president of Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124, said. “Firefighters did not encourage this. We were faced with this at the council table and worked out a compromise. This wasn’t something we were bringing to council or the mayor’s office. It was something we were forced to deal with as a result of conversations at the table.”

The mayor agreed with the union’s compromise and signed off on it.

“But, during the council meeting, Councilman Harper decided to throw in the police department too,” Henry said. “No one knew it was coming. He had not talked to me. He had not talked to the police department, that was obvious.”

Director of Public Safety Rusty York said he was only made aware of Harper’s intention to change the ordinance about ten minutes before the council meeting started.

“The purpose of the ordinance, I feel, was for it to apply to all of public safety, which specifically was the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA). That’s what concerns the mayor that a discussion never took place to find out how they feel about it. Police and fire are very different. Their unions are very different and this obviously will impact the PBA much more than it will the firefighters’ union,” York, who used to be the police chief, said. “This was an agreement between the firefighters and the administration alone. We didn’t anticipate the ordinance.”

Sofia Rosales, the president of the PBA of Fort Wayne, said if there was a memorandum of understanding with the fire union, she doesn’t see why an ordinance was necessary.

“To ordinance your way out of everything instead of having meaningful dialogue is not the way the political process should be running. I don’t know why there was a rush for this. There was no discussion and no involvement with us and it so gravely affects us,” Rosales said.

The PBA represents around 375 rank and file officers on the Fort Wayne Police Department. Its primary function is to provide legal protection for an officer involved in a shooting, in-custody death or internal complaint. The union does have compulsory membership and dues are $40 a month.

“To collectively take that money and put it towards those legal fees is the only way to make that work. Otherwise, you don’t have enough money to function,” Rosales said.

Rosales is concerned that if membership and dues are optional, some may choose to opt out.

“Especially with the younger ones coming on this job. They don’t get full pay when they get here and might see it as a way to save $40 a month and say, ‘how likely is it that I’m going to get in a shoot.’ You can never project that. It’s like car insurance. The premiums may be high, but when it comes down to it and you need it, boy are you glad you have it,” she said.

The PBA is almost finished with its new contract and hopes it will be brought to city council by August 1. But, if council overrides the veto of compulsory union membership, the contract could be held up.

The Fraternal Order of Police represents the police department’s sergeants and lieutenants. Those members wouldn’t be affected by the ordinance the way the PBA is.

“They don’t have to pay union dues if they don’t want to, but we protect them because of the rank they hold. If they choose not to be part of the union, they don’t have a vote when things come in, but we still protect them under the contract. It’s just limited,” Sgt. Mitch McKinney, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Indiana Wayne Lodge 14, said.

McKinney was still upset by council’s actions.

“It’s just a sneaky tactic to say, ‘Hey, we can slide this in on top of another one.’ It’s important if city council has an issue that they bring those issues to all the members of law enforcement so we can sit down and discuss those issues,” McKinney said.

Harper said he’s been vocal about opposing compulsory unionism since the debate about collective bargaining began in May.

“We’ve had ongoing talks throughout this whole summer process and what I’ve been surprised at is the lack of engagement by the PBA over the last five weeks in terms of discussion,” he said.

Rosales wasn’t at the July 8 council meeting because of a personal conflict.

“I was not informed this was coming. If I knew something of that gravity was going to happen, I could have had someone there,” she said.

Henry said Friday that he takes city council’s actions against the city’s unions personally.

“It’s my staff and I think they deserve the very best treatment they can get, whether it’s pay, whether it’s benefits or whether it’s working conditions. To have someone come in and for no reason other than their own philosophical reasons, to me, that’s most inappropriate, unprofessional and beneath good legislating,” the mayor said.

Harper was disappointed by the mayor’s veto, but wasn’t surprised. He added that Henry hasn’t been in compliance with city code:

Chapter 40.25 (C) The mayor shall meet with the Common Council prior to negotiations to gain suggestions from the members of Council as to items to be considered at the bargaining table. The Mayor shall inform the Common Council at regular intervals of the progress of negotiations.

“They admitted at the table they hadn’t done so. We’ve never had any consultations from the mayor’s office and that’s not just unprofessional, that’s against city code and city law,” Harper said.

The mayor’s office declined to comment after Harper issued that statement, but earlier in the day had said the administration prides itself on being inclusive.

“We engage the public. We engage the employees. We engage the unions to sit down and talk to us. We’ve even engaged council members to talk to us on occasion and sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t, but the fact is we are trying to engage people in dialogue. Apparently council decided that it was not necessary and they went off and did their own thing,” Henry said.

Mayor Henry previously vetoed an ordinance that repealed collective bargaining in mid-June.  Click here to read more about that veto.  Council overturned that veto with a 6-3 vote at its meeting on June 24.  Council’s vote was split down party lines.

City council will have an opportunity to once again override the mayor’s veto at an upcoming meeting. It will need six votes to override the veto.

Bush said regardless of whether council overrides the mayor’s veto or not, the firefighters’ contract and the letter of agreement that disregards compulsory union dues would stay in effect.

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