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The Legislature’s struggle to agree on a rail tax plan isn’t the only fiscal uncertainty facing Honolulu Hale, where officials also await word on negotiations for a new police contract.
After all, the last time Hawaii’s statewide police union negotiated a new pact for nearly 2,800 officers, it blew a $20 million hole in Honolulu’s city budget.
That was in 2013, when an arbitrator awarded across-the-board salary increases of 16.8 percent over four years. Officers also got a bump in “standard of conduct” pay, meaning that so long as they acted professionally and didn’t get arrested they would receive a monthly salary bonus ranging from $2 to $4 for every non-overtime hour worked.
Honolulu officials estimated the deal would cost the city roughly $200 million over the life of the contract. On the neighbor islands the hit was much less, but still in the tens of millions.
“That’s a tremendous increase,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said at the time. “(A)nd I’m concerned, looking forward, next time we negotiate, how is that going to jump?”
Caldwell stands to find out soon enough, along with the other three mayors on Maui, Hawaii and Kauai counties. The current SHOPO collective bargaining agreement is set to expire June 30, and the terms of a new contract could be announced any day.
Money is far from the only potential issue on the table. County police departments are looking to initiate or increase their use of body cams, and SHOPO has argued that this shouldn’t happen without its approval.
Meanwhile, a state senator has urged Gov. David Ige and the counties to negotiate a better arbitration procedure for when police officers are disciplined after Civil Beat reported recently on how hard it is to fire bad cops in Hawaii.
Much of the focus of collective bargaining is on the cost of the new contracts. Taxpayers want to know what the deal will cost them, and often county and state officials must make cuts to other government services to accommodate the pay raises and benefit perks.
After SHOPO’s arbitration victory in 2013, city officials moved to close a satellite city hall in Kailua as well as reduce the size of police and firefighter recruit classes in an attempt to save money. Tree trimming services were also on the chopping block.
The Caldwell administration also proposed a slew of new measures aimed at increasing the city’s tax revenues.
It’s too soon to say how much the city stands to pay out as a result of the new round of negotiations with the police union. But officials across Hawaii have been bracing for increased labor costs, especially considering all 14 public employee bargaining units in the state have contracts that expire June 30.
A handful of deals have already been struck or decided by a third-party arbitrator. The estimated fiscal impact for the state is $460 million over the life of the new contracts, some of which are for two years and others that go for four. More pay raises are expected.
Gov. David Ige’s finance director, Wes Machida, said last week that the administration will likely need to look at spending restrictions to fund the new contracts. He would not provide specifics because some agreements are still be negotiated.
When it comes to the SHOPO contract, Honolulu will see the largest financial impact considering the size of its police force. The Honolulu Police Department has around 2,000 sworn officers, making it by far the largest law enforcement agency in the state. It’s also the 20th largest in the country.
None of the involved parties are talking publicly about ongoing negotiations. Honolulu Managing Director Roy Amemiya said only, “Negotiations are underway. Both the employer group and the union have agreed to confidentiality until completion of the process. Accordingly, the city declines comment.”
Similarly, SHOPO President Tenari Maafala did not comment. Vladimir Devens, an attorney representing the union at the bargaining table, would say only, “It’s pending. But we cannot discuss that.”
While no one is talking about the negotiations, Big Island Mayor Harry Kim was not shy about providing his perspective on what the contract might do to his county’s bottom line.
Kim said Hawaii County is already feeling the pinch from lagging revenues and uncertainty over its share of the hotel tax.
Union pay raises, he said, only add to the fiscal uncertainty.
“I’ll tell you this much — and this is not putting it lightly — all the unions are very good and tough negotiators,” Kim said. “That is well known and not a secret to anyone. And when you negotiate with these unions you better know that.
“Their job is to get the best deal that they can get for their members. And we know that.”
The police union’s current collective bargaining agreement is 97 pages long, which means there’s a lot that can be negotiated.
In addition to regular salary and benefits, there are provisions for overtime, sick leave, firearm and uniform maintenance allowances, and subsidized vehicle payments, which can be up to $600 a month for certain officers and divisions.
The union has also been at odds with the Kauai Police Department over the implementation of body cameras and how that might affect workplace conditions.
Although KPD officials worked with SHOPO on developing a body camera policy, the union argued that the use of the technology was a change of workplace conditions that therefore must be negotiated under the collective bargaining agreement.
The Hawaii Labor Relations Board and the state Circuit Court sided with KPD’s decision to implement a body camera program without SHOPO’s express approval.
It’s unclear at this point whether SHOPO brought up its disagreements with KPD during current contract negotiations. SHOPO officials, including Maafala, have said they support body cameras for officers, especially if it can clear them of allegations of wrongdoing.
One aspect of the contract that some would like to see addressed involves the grievance arbitration procedure for officers accused of misconduct.
According to a Civil Beat analysis of HPD misconduct records, at least 16 police officers who were discharged for misconduct from 2014 to 2016 have appealed those decisions using the grievance procedures outlined in the SHOPO contract.
Accusations against the officers included sexual assault, kidnapping and trying to cover up an off-duty shooting. One officer, Darren Cachola, was fired after he was caught on surveillance video attacking his girlfriend in a restaurant.
The union contract allows officers to appeal a disciplinary action up to four times, although it is possible to skip steps along the way.
Under the contract, a disciplinary action can be overturned by a department administrator if the facts or circumstances don’t warrant the punishment. But if the discipline is upheld, an officer can appeal to the chief. If the chief doesn’t reverse the decision the officer can appeal to the city human resources department.
The final step in the process would be to hire a third-party arbitrator, whose decision is binding.
State Sen. Will Espero thinks it’s time to stand up to SHOPO at the negotiating table so that citizens can be better protected from problem officers. He sent an April 5 email to Ige and the mayors of Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties telling them as much.
Espero’s correspondence was in response to the Civil Beat article about the 16 officers trying to get their jobs back through the union-backed grievance process.
Espero said he was particularly concerned about former HPD officer Teddy Van Lerberghe, who was indicted in March on seven counts of sexual assault on a minor.
Van Lerberghe, who has pleaded not guilty, had appealed his termination using the union grievance process. His case is currently in arbitration, meaning he could get his job back — potentially with back pay — depending on how a third-party arbitrator rules.
Espero said Van Lerberghe’s case should be a “wake-up call” for Ige and others, including Caldwell, both of whom have remained relatively silent about police misconduct.
“The union grievance process should err on the side of the general public, and not questionable officers,” Espero said in his email. “Common sense and logic should dictate who can carry a gun and badge and be our protectors. The grievance process regarding fired police officers should be part of any negotiation, especially after this Civil Beat article.
“You have an opportunity to provide greater safety to the public by not allowing bad cops or terminated police to be in a position where they have a gun and badge. These guilty individuals need to be weeded out.”
Espero said the county police departments should have more of a say in the termination of an officer than an independent arbitrator.
State law gives the governor four votes in collective bargaining process, meaning he can hold sway should he convince the other counties that a change in the agreement is needed. Each county only gets one vote. So if Ige wanted to push for a particular negotiating stand, he’d need the support of at least one county.
Espero told Civil Beat he has not received a response from Ige, Caldwell or any of the other county mayors.
“If someone is improperly discharged that’s one thing,” Espero said. “But I don’t think the public likes the idea of having officers on the payroll once their chief or department has found through their own investigation and due diligence that someone did wrong or broke the law.”
Espero isn’t the only person worried about how the union grievance process plays out at county police departments. The police chiefs have their own concerns.
Representatives of HPD refused to discuss ongoing contract negotiations with SHOPO.
But last month during a Honolulu Police Commission hearing, Acting Police Chief Cary Okimoto acknowledged that his hands are often tied when trying to discharge officers.
He noted his decisions can be overturned by an independent arbitrator. When that happens, Okimoto said there’s nothing more the department can do since the arbitration decision is binding, with no chance for further appeal.
Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry, who has applied to be HPD’s next chief, has encountered similar problems in his department. Perry said he would like to see county and state leaders address arbitration during contract negotiations.
Decisions regarding whether or not to fire a bad officer should not be left up to someone who might not have any insight into how that might affect others in the department, Perry said. Having a problem officer on the force can sully the image of an entire department and decrease morale, he said.
“I’ve had to fire an officer three times before it finally stuck, and that’s really, really frustrating for us,” Perry said. “To have an officer who is not suitable carrying a gun with police authority is not good for the police department nor for the public.”
University of Hawaii law professor Ronald Brown, who specializes in employment law and arbitration, said it’s unlikely SHOPO would ever consider putting its grievance and arbitration procedures on the negotiating table.
The rules are in place to protect employees from vindictive bosses, he said, and they make it easier for employees who feel they might have been wronged to appeal a manager’s decision without incurring the time and expense of going to court.
“Arbitration is in 95 percent of contracts all over the country, both public and private,” Brown said. “The unions closely embrace arbitration, and it would be unheard of for them to give it up.”