Lexington's police union still undecided about whether to challenge mayor on use of cruisers

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comJuly 16, 2014 

Sgt. April Brown arrives at new cruiser after Lexington Fayette-Urban County Police Chief, Anthany Beatty issued the first 10 police cruisers bearing the new vechicle logo scheme light bars to officers of the 98-99 recuit class on Tuesday morning, Oct. 14, 2003 at the Roll Call Center on Old Frankfort Pike in Lexington, Kentucky.

LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

The city's police union has not yet decided whether it will take advantage of a change Mayor Jim Gray made last week that will allow police officers to use police cruisers for personal use at no cost.

Gray made the change by executive order Friday after a week of back-and-forth between the city and the police union over the use of police cars.

Members of some of the city's unions have questioned whether Gray had the authority to make a significant change to the collective bargaining agreement — even one that benefits police officers — by executive order.

Det. Jason Rothermund, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge #4, said earlier this week that police are trying to determine their next move. Rothermund did not return calls Wednesday.

"Both the city and the FOP must agree to the terms of any change in benefits covered under the contract," Rothermund said last week. "The mayor does not possess the authority to unilaterally alter the contract."

City officials maintain that Gray has the authority to make the change but declined to provide any additional information to back up that claim — including court decisions.

There appears to be no precedent.

"To my knowledge, the city has not previously issued an executive order related to a union contract," said Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Gray.

Straub then referred to comments made last week by Janet Graham, the city's law commissioner. Graham said Friday, "Today's executive order is legally appropriate and officers now have the option to drive their police vehicles while off duty."

Capt. Chris Bartley, longtime president of Lexington Firefighters Union IAFF Local 526, said he questioned whether Gray had the legal authority to make such a change to a contract. But Bartley said he doesn't know the specifics of the police union's contract with the city.

Bartley said that in his memory, no mayor has ever tried to make a material change to a collective bargaining agreement by executive order. During Mayor Jim Newberry's administration, Newberry talked about issuing an executive order that would prohibit firefighters from taking vacation during the 2010 World Equestrian Games. The firefighters union has a provision in its contract that allows a mayor to make changes during an emergency. But after Bartley and the firefighters union pointed out that there were more people at Keeneland and the University of Kentucky football games than the World Equestrian Games, the city backed off, Bartley said.

"More people is not an emergency," Bartley said.

In addition to police and fire, the city has a collective bargaining agreement with the city's corrections officers. Officials with that union could not be reached for comment.

Gray's executive order does not cite an emergency. It does say that the city has had an unusual uptick in crime this summer. Gray has said that the unlimited use of police vehicles will stop once the spike in crime has gone down but has declined to elaborate on how the city will make that determination.

The firefighters union is watching the developments closely. They begin negotiations on their contract in coming weeks, Bartley said.

The police union and the city had been negotiating for six months on reinstating the personal use benefit before Gray made the change Friday. The benefit was halted in 2012 as part of an effort to cut costs. But only allowing police officers to drive their vehicles home and to work did not generate the $800,000 in savings that it was expected to generate. The city estimates that it only saved the city $280,000 in 2013.

After the estimates showed that there were limited cost savings, the city and the union began to talk about trying to reinstate the benefit. The union suspended its vote July 9 to amend the current contract to allow police officers unlimited use of their cruisers for a monthly $50 fee. City officials said that the $50 fee was to help cover the costs for gas.

Union officials said the vote was suspended because they felt that comments made by Gray's staff made it appear that the police were at fault for the loss of the benefit.

Gray has said that his staff was simply stating facts of the collective bargaining agreement — the police opted to take the restriction on personal use of police cars over other cuts such as a changes to health insurance benefits.

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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