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Councilmembers Push Back Against Police Bargaining Agreement

City Council appears poised to reject an agreement between the police union and city officials.
City Council appears poised to reject an agreement between the police union and city officials.

As elected officials across Colorado rethink police policies, members of Denver City Council are pushing back against a bargaining agreement recently reached by the Denver police union and the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock.

At a September 2 safety committee meeting, councilmembers expressed their opposition to the agreement, which had been hashed out in private per city regulations. Their major complaint was that council hadn't been included in the negotiating process in a meaningful way; some also argued that the agreement shouldn't include a guaranteed raise for police officers in 2022.

"I have a heck of a problem assuring a raise when we have no assurance of similar raises in other elements of our workforce," said Councilman Paul Kashmann, chair of the committee.

At the end of the meeting, the committee members forwarded the agreement to the full Denver City Council for a vote in the coming weeks. But its passage already appears to be in jeopardy, with five councilmembers stating publicly that they will vote against it. That's just two votes shy of a majority.

If council turns down the collective bargaining agreement — which Hancock administration officials believe would be a first — then the Denver Police Protective Association and the city can re-enter negotiations. If they're still unable to come up with a deal that is agreeable to a majority of Denver City Council members, then the negotiations would head to binding arbitration.

If negotiations begin again, council would no doubt play a larger role in the process, since Denver's city charter mandates that a councilmember or representative be at the table, along with a mayoral staffer. At the meeting, council's lack of involvement thus far was clearly a sticking point.

"I, for a variety of reasons, cannot support this contract," said council president Stacie Gilmore, who pointed out that the contract was a done deal before council had its first closed-door session with legal counsel to hear what was being proposed. "When we had executive sessions the first time, it had already been sent to the union for ratification." Ninety-three percent of union members voted in favor of the agreement.

Administration officials handling the negotiations didn't notify council about the bargaining sessions until they were already under way. "I'm not sure what happened, but we weren't notified and able to join the process until the third day," says council spokesperson Stacy Simonet. Linda Jamison, the city's legislative services director, began attending negotiations on council's behalf on the third day of negotiations.

"It was an oversight and not an intentional one, and it was rectified as soon as it was made known," Rob Nespor, a city lawyer involved in the negotiations, said at the committee meeting.

Some councilmembers also took issue with the agreement's stipulation that police officers get a 2.77 percent salary increase in 2022. Salaries would remain the same in 2021, but officers would lose out on holiday pay next year, and the city would contribute $360,000 less to the police retiree health fund.

The total savings under the agreement would be just under $5 million in 2021, a year in which the city expects to again have a massive budget deficit owing to lost revenue.

"Absent this $5M savings, other City agencies would be forced to make even deeper cuts to meet the Charter requirement for a balanced budget, and the City would see greater adverse service impacts, additional employee impacts or both," Mayor Hancock wrote to city council on August 13.

"Collective bargaining is a negotiation. When it became apparent that COVID-19 would negatively impact the city budget, the [union] came to us and expressed a willingness to problem-solve around our budget challenges," explains Mike Strott, a spokesperson for the mayor's office.

While the problem-solving began without council at the table, there's no guarantee that councilmembers will like what emerges in a second round of negotiations. If Denver City Council rejects both this agreement and a second version, then both the city and police union will be required to submit offers to a neutral arbitrator, who would choose one or the other, with no possible compromising.

Nespor pointed that out in his presentation before the committee. "There is always a risk that an arbitration award will result in an agreement far less favorable than the negotiated agreement now before city council," he warned.

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