After months of stalled contract negotiations, the union that represents city police officers announced this afternoon that it is inviting media organizations to attend arbitration hearings that are typically not open for to the public.
The announcement comes less than a week before city and union officials are set to appear before an arbitration panel, according to Howard McQuillan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, the union representing city officers.
The statement, released to City Paper
minutes ago, reads in part: "Mayor Peduto has publicly suggested that the Act 111 arbitration process should be a transparent one. FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 supports the concept of open hearings, so we are notifying local media. We will not object to your presence during the hearings (we do not know whether the City will object). Our only request is that you not video or audio tape the actual hearings, but instead take written notes. FOP representatives will be available on site for comment before and after the hearings."
"The mayor says he wants a transparent process," McQuillan told City Paper.
"We agree it's something the public should see from the beginning to the end."
Through a spokeswoman, the mayor released a statement which reads: "We welcome and encourage the media to attend all police union bargaining sessions, and we look forward to open and honest discussions for the betterment of our police officers and our entire city."
Since the police union is not legally allowed to strike, contract-negotiation deadlocks are resolved by a tripartite arbitration panel, with one representative each from the union and city — and one "neutral" arbitrator. That panel's final decisions are binding.
A similar arbitration process
can be initiated when the city and union disagree over discipline, but McQuillan says those shouldn't be public because they involve the disciplinary records of individual officers.
McQuillan says four negotiating sessions with the city haven't yielded an agreement and the first session in front of an arbitration panel is set for April 8. The police contract expired at the end of 2014.
The city did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the status of contract negotiations.
Members of the law-enforcement community differed on whether hearings in front of the arbitration panel should be open to public scrutiny.
"I think the public has a right to know what’s being discussed," says Robert McNeilly, a former Pittsburgh police chief who was interviewed before the FOP's announcement this afternoon. "It’s in the citizen’s best interest. If a decision’s made and nobody ever knows what was discussed or why a decision was made — everybody’s in the dark.”
Sheldon Williams, an officer with city police until 2011 and current member of the Citizen Police Review Board, says that "there needs to be some element of confidentiality there." He argues that for the neutral arbitrator to "make a fair decision," it makes sense not to have every step of the negotiating process aired publicly.
The police union's full statement here:
To Pittsburgh Local Media:
On behalf of Pittsburgh’s active and retired police officers, I would like to invite you to attend our upcoming Act 111 interest arbitration hearings between the City of Pittsburgh and FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. Those hearings will result in an interest arbitration award that will set the terms of a new Pittsburgh police CBA for the period beginning January 1, 2015.
The FOP’s presentation will take place on April 8, 9, 13, 14 and 23 at the Double Tree Hotel located at One Bigelow Square, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Hearings are scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. each day.
Mayor Peduto has publicly suggested that the Act 111 arbitration process should be a transparent one. FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 supports the concept of open hearings, so we are notifying local media. We will not object to your presence during the hearings (we do not know whether the City will object). Our only request is that you not video or audio tape the actual hearings, but instead take written notes. FOP representatives will be available on site for comment before and after the hearings.
We look forward to including you in this process and hope to see you there.
Howard D. McQuillan,
President FOP Fort Pitt Lodge#1
This post was updated on 4/2/15 at 4:15 p.m. to add a statement from Mayor Bill Peduto.