PHOENIX – The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that paying police officers while they did work for the police union does not violate the state constitution.
The court’s split decision overturns two previous lower court rulings against the practice of so-called “release time” for Phoenix police officers. As part of the city’s agreement with the police union, Phoenix had for years allowed officers to do work for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association – on the taxpayers’ dime.
Over a two-year period, the union had negotiated release time provisions worth about $1.7 million, according to court documents.
“We’re extremely happy,” said Ken Crane, president of PLEA. “It’s been a long five-year battle with a lot of ups and downs, and we believe the state Supreme Court clearly saw the merits in our side of the argument – the issue being whether or not the city of Phoenix was gifting money to the police union to have officers on full time release.”
The two lower courts decided that release time violated the state constitution’s “gift clause,” which says no government entity can pay or subsidize any person or group unless it “has a public purpose” and the benefits to the entity are proportionate to what the government gains in return.
The Supreme Court disagreed with the earlier court decisions. It described release time as part of the “overall compensation package” negotiated between the city and union. And it said the city did benefit through a “harmonious and cooperative relationships” between the city and its employees.
“We go to the table every two years to negotiate pay and benefits, then we take a little slice out of the pie to pay for six people to be on full time release,” Crane said. “The officers willingly (give) up a little in pay and benefits to have us here to represent their interests.”
In 2011, Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio presented this issue to the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, which took the case to court on behalf of Arizona taxpayers.
DiCiccio called the decision shocking: “It’s the disproportionality that blows me out of the water.”
DiCiccio said the money going to unions for release time takes away from funding other projects. “Taxpayers are going to have to make a decision whether they should be funding housing for the poor or union activities,” he said.
Jon Riches, director of national litigation for the Goldwater Institute, agreed that the “disproportionality” of what governments get in return from funding release time was a key issue.
“We know from the case that those (union) activities included supporting political candidates, opposing political candidates, lobbying and filing grievances against the city, things that are purely within the private interest of the union,” he said.
Crane said this case is just part of a longer-term agenda.
“The Goldwater Institute, and groups like them, for years have been attacking organized labor,” he said. “They see organized labor as an evil threat to be dealt with, and anything they can do to try to defeat any form of organized labor is a good thing. We see them trying to attack pension benefits and the police officer bill of rights, so these battles are really nothing new. In fact, they are to be expected.”