Elected officials need to clean up union mess - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Elected officials need to clean up union mess

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Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at bill.richardson@cox.net.

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2011 4:15 am | Updated: 1:56 pm, Sat Oct 1, 2011.

In the early '70s when I started in Arizona law enforcement, there were no police unions. Talk of unions by officers was most often met with swift retribution by police chiefs.

Many law enforcement agencies were ruled by a "good old boy system." Promotions and transfers were often based on political loyalties and who was the best behind-kisser - not on merit.

Organized labor changed much of that and gave officers a voice and a lawyer to fight poor treatment by management.

Arizona's law enforcement labor movement began to take off in the '80s. It was a slow start fraught with obstacles set up by those who had no interest in change and acknowledging employees for what they could do to make a community safer.

In the beginning the unions were mostly about fair treatment of their local members, but that changed.

At the turn of the 21st Century, law enforcement public safety labor groups were growing in respectability, public popularity and political power. Even politicians like former State House Speaker and congressional candidate Kirk Adams and State Senate President Russell Pearce created an almost unheard of alliance between conservative Republicans and organized labor. In 2010, when Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law Senate Bill 1070, she was surrounded by members of the Arizona Police Association, the state's largest law enforcement union.

In the East Valley, Tempe city councilman, now mayor, Hugh Hallman, also a Republican, championed Tempe's meet and confer ordinance in 1999 that brought police and fire groups to the bargaining table. Tempe helped to open the door for public safety labor groups at the city level. Hallman was later supported by those unions in his successful mayoral bids in 2004 and 2008.

Public safety labor organizations had became the political darlings for many elected officials.

In return for labor's political support, some elected officials reciprocated by meeting requests for increased benefits, even when the request was financially unsound. Some changes enacted by elected officials attacked the fiscal soundness of a statewide retirement system for public safety officers that had been in existence in Arizona since 1968. Unions were later blamed by politicians for the retirement system's failures and need for drastic restructuring.

And the questions over union benefits given by elected officials aren't over.

According to a Goldwater investigation that was reported in the Sept. 23 Tribune ("E.V. cities use taxpayer dollars for union work"), public safety and city employee unions, including several in the East Valley, are the target of questions being asked due to the thousands of hours of city work time given to workers by elected officials to conduct union business.

The Tribune story pointed out that Tempe has given out benefits that surpass what other East Valley cities provide. Tempe, the East Valley's smallest city and with the highest ratio of employees to residents, allows unions around 13,000 hours of work time. Tempe has a history of raising taxes and fees in order to meet its bills, including extra generous benefits to elected officials and upper echelon employees.

Chandler comes in second at approximately 5,000 hours, and Mesa is projected to provide 3,000 hours for unions when its meet and confer agreements are finalized.

The Goldwater Institute is reportedly planning a lawsuit over what it feels are violations by cities of the gift clause of the Arizona Constitution.

Will unions once again be made the bad guys in the public's eyes and not the elected officials who bought the unions' political support with our tax dollars?

When the Goldwater Institute sues, it usually wins.

East Valley cities don't need a battle with labor fighting them on one side and the Goldwater Institute on the other.

Before it hits the fan, East Valley political and union leaders need to meet with the Goldwater Institute and seek a positive solution for all parties involved, especially us taxpayers, before any more of our finite supply of tax dollars are wasted.

Elected officials made this mess, now they need to clean it up.

• Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at bill.richardson@cox.net

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