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Media invited to Pittsburgh Police contract arbitration for the first time

"Any time you go to the public with your cause, you're taking a gamble."

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Pittsburgh Police
  • Photo by Heather Mull

For the first time Pittsburgh city and police-union officials can remember, arbitration of the police contract will be open to the media ... if they can find it.

The proceedings were set to start at 10 a.m. on April 8. But as of press time, neither side could agree on one small detail: where everyone should show up.

"I don't think the city has a problem going to the DoubleTree [hotel]," says police-union lawyer Bryan Campbell. "The question is who's going to pay for it." The city, meanwhile, has said the proceedings will happen on the sixth floor of the City-County Building, free of charge.

The dispute over where the arbitration proceedings will be held is indicative of the quality of negotiations so far, Campbell acknowledges, and could foreshadow the way arguments between the parties will play out through the media.

The police-union contract expired at the end of last year, and because state law prohibits public-safety unions from striking, a three-member arbitration panel is the method used to resolve disputes when traditional negotiations fail.

In the past, those arbitration proceedings have not been public. But on April 2, police-union president Howard McQuillan invited local media outlets to attend. The union's press release was the first time the city heard the suggestion, says Kevin Acklin, Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff. But Peduto quickly released a statement of his own encouraging media attendance.

"I don't know if it's a sign of good faith ... that's sort of how we took it," Acklin says.

But the police union's decision to take its case to the public has its risks, experts say. "I think [the union's] reasoning would be they have a pretty compelling argument to make, a pretty compelling story to tell, and will persuade the public, which will persuade the government," says Joe Quinn, a former city Law Department lawyer who has worked on public-safety-union contracts for more than 20 years. "Any time you go to the public with your cause, you're taking a gamble."

Neither city nor union officials would say much about what the two sides are asking for in advance of their presentations, which are expected to run into May. But one thing is clear: The union is going to argue that the city is not as financially troubled as officials claim and can afford to pay officers more.

"I don't think the public understands the financial situation of the city," the police union's Campbell says. "And this is an opportunity to have experts — economists the [union] has hired — to say, 'This is not a financially distressed community.'"

Acklin counters that such logic would require the city to violate the law under Act 47, a state oversight program for financially distressed cities like Pittsburgh. "And from a policy perspective, it's a lack of fiscal discipline that got the city into the trouble it got into."

It wasn't immediately clear what other issues are on the table — neither city nor union officials would say — but Brandi Fisher, executive director of the Alliance for Police Accountability, is hoping for changes in the disciplinary process.

"We're looking forward to change that will allow the process to be a little more transparent when there [is] obvious misconduct," Fisher says. "The mayor was looking to secure disciplinary action for officers who are found guilty in civil lawsuits. If you're liable, you're liable."

For his part, Campbell says he isn't aware of proposals on disciplinary issues — though Acklin says, "In general, we want the ability for those officers who are regularly unable to follow the rules ... that they be held accountable. I'll leave it at that."

But even if the police union wins over the public through the media, will it affect the outcome?

Michael Zobrak, an arbitrator in Pennsylvania for 33 years, doesn't think so. That's partly because after each side makes its presentation and calls witnesses, there are private executive sessions where much of the bargaining happens. "That has not been public, nor do I see it being public," Zobrak says. "That's where you go back and forth. You have to cajole a little bit — do a bit of horse-trading.

"That's really where the hard work takes place."

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