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Arbitration often puts fired cops back on the job

January 13, 2019

A Danbury police officer was fired after allegedly beating a pedestrian on a city street. In East Haven, an officer lost her job over a domestic dispute.

But the terminations turned out to be temporary.

Both officers were reinstated last year by the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration, a six member panel empowered to resolve labor disputes.

In fact, seven police officers fired by Connecticut municipalities over the last two years were reinstated by the mediation board, a Hearst Connecticut Media review of the cases shows.

The board ruled in favor of police unions and officers in 12 cases and ruled in favor of a city or town in nine cases.

One case was settled, another was tabled and a third was sent to state Superior Court for further arbitration.

Some municipal officials say the mediation process is tilted in favor of unions and costs taxpayers large payouts for back wages, litigation and other expenses. They also say there should be a way to overturn rulings at the local level.

“It’s not an effective system,” said Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.

“It takes years and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Boughton said of the system. “It’s a very broken process.”

In addition to ordering Danbury and East Haven to rehire officers, the mediation board reinstated five Bridgeport school cops laid off to save the Board of Education money.

In each case, the arbitrators ruled the municipality violated a union contract and ordered the communities to reinstate the officers and pay lost wages.

“That sounds about right,” said Av Harris, legislative liaison and a spokesman for Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, referring to the mediation board’s record.

Still, Harris said despite losing a case, the city views the process as a necessary way to resolve labor disputes.

“Across the board these cases go one way or the other,” Harris said. “It’s truly a neutral board; they listen to both sides.”

Bad cops?

Danbury officer Daniel Sellner was fired in January 2014 after city officials determined, based on a store video of the incident, that he used unreasonable force while arresting a youth on Main Street.

Although the officer said the youth fell while in handcuffs, the city maintained Sellner pushed him to the ground and told the mediation board he had a history of excessive behavior.

The police union argued there wasn’t clear evidence of unreasonable force in the video and complained that investigating officers never interviewed Sellner about the arrest.

The mediation board concluded Danbury did not have “just cause” to terminate Sellner and the city’s investigation was not “fair or objective.”

The East Haven case involved Detective Monique Cobert, the town’s first African-American officer, who was terminated in 2017 over a domestic incident that involved a fight with her husband.

The town maintained Cobert violated department policies regarding “good conduct” and displayed “dishonest” behavior.

The mediation board found “no just cause” under the union contract to warrant the termination and ordered Cobert reinstated.

The five Bridgeport special police officers were not accused of misconduct. Their termination was the result of a cost savings move by the Board of Education.

The mediation board found the city had signed a memorandum of understanding with the union in which officers agreed to accept lower wage increases in exchange for a no layoff guarantee.

In other cases, a Shelton police officer’s suspension for running into a concrete truck was reversed. An East Hartford officer accused of violating department rules by working a private event where alcohol was served also won reversal of his discipline.

In another case, a New Milford officer’s demotion over a medical training dispute was reversed.

Not happy

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities recently released a report on unfunded state mandates that focused in part on binding arbitration for labor disputes.

“When local leaders are required to make the tough decisions to pay for these mandates, the property tax burden is borne by residents and businesses,” said Joe Delong, CCM’s executive director.

CCM proposed changing state law so local governing or legislative bodies can reject arbitrated decisions by a two-thirds vote.

“This forces local governments to increase property taxes to cover the costs of these mandates, reduce or eliminate local services, or cancel or limit needed infrastructure improvements,” DeLong said.

The mediation board is split into two, three-member panels to hear cases. The governor appoints the members, with two representing labor, two representing management and two representing the general public.

Towns and cities must abide by mediation board decisions; they can appeal to a state Superior Court, but that effort is rarely successful.

Dennis Murphy, a professional arbitrator and the mediation board’s vice chairman, said the board is fair and impartial.

“We call them as we see them,” Murphy said.

Murphy said most of the decisions are unanimous, which means the labor, neutral and management representatives agreed.

“I’ve been there two years,” Murphy said, referring to his time on the board. “It goes both ways. It’s 50/50.”

Murphy said the idea of a two-thirds override at the local level would throw cases into the political world.

“It’s not an unfunded mandate,” Murphy said. “It’s a very economic process. If you violated the contract, you violated the contract.”

Override

Boughton said the system is not working and public trust in police and municipal decisions is at stake.

“It erodes trust and for people to have confidence,” Boughton said.

“They didn’t quarrel with the behavior [in the Danbury case],” Boughton added, referring to the arbitrators.

“They ruled on the punishment,” Boughton said. We disagree. The arbitrator did not understand that our code of conduct is not part of the contract.”

Boughton said the ability to override decisions is needed.

“It would make sense,” Boughton said. “I need to be able to manage my department and actions that didn’t meet that standard. But we will follow the ruling and the officer will go back to the academy.”

Boughton added: “This took three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it’s a choice you have to make.”

Former state Sen. Len Suzio, a Meriden Republican who lost his seat last fall, said there is a sense among municipal officials that the mediation board favors unions.

“When I was on the Board of Education, I can’t tell how you how many contracts would go to arbitration and the board favored the union,” Suzio said.

“I remember when Al Gore talked about reinventing government,” Suzio added. “I think that is where we are right now. The only time you get change is when the status quo cannot be sustained.”

bcummings@ctpost.com

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