The resignations last week of North Las Vegas City Manager Tim Hacker and City Attorney Jeffrey Barr were not surprising — voters replaced Mayor Shari Buck earlier this year with John Lee, and change was in the air.
Part of that change was moving beyond the seemingly intractable labor problems that have pitted police and fire public employee unions in North Las Vegas against city management, a fight that led Hacker and Barr to advance a novel legal theory in order to force concessions.
The city passed a resolution contending that a state law that gives local governments the authority to suspend union contracts in the event of “riot, military action, natural disaster or civil disorder” also gives leaders the authority to suspend contracts in the wake of a financial emergency. The union sued, saying this was not so.
In June, it looked as if both sides were ready to settle that lawsuit. City officials looked forward to the approval of sales tax money that could fund police jobs, and union officials even conceded that winning the lawsuit didn’t represent a victory if a cash-strapped city couldn’t fulfill its agreements.
But now, we may see that legal theory tested in court after all.
The sales tax issue has been tied up by a County Commission that can’t seem to muster a two-thirds vote to pass it, and a deadline to withdraw from the settlement, Aug. 26, is fast approaching.
At the heart of the city’s argument is the idea that a financial emergency is equivalent to the other disasters mentioned in the statute. “The unprecedented emergency now facing the city is precisely the ‘type’ of emergency contemplated by NRS 288.150(4) because it is tethered to the city’s most basic governmental function — the protection of public safety and the general welfare of its citizens,” reads a city brief in the lawsuit.
It adds: “In enacting [the law], the Legislature was not focused on the ‘cause’ of the emergency situation (natural, man-made, financial, etc.) that would authorize the suspension of collective bargaining agreements; rather, they were focused on its ‘effect’ — expressly recognizing that, in times of a public safety crisis, union contracts must give way to the greater public good.”
But the fact remains that the law in question exclusively uses examples of immediate, life-and-death situations which require public safety officers to resolve — all are exigent circumstances that, absent a cop or firefighter’s help, could result in the death of citizens.
By contrast, a financial emergency doesn’t present the same kind of urgency. There’s time for cooler heads to prevail, to negotiate concessions instead of needing to deploy officers and firefighters to the streets to quell disasters. And, in the event negotiations aren’t fruitful, there’s a ready alternative in state law: unbalanced budgets can lead to a state Taxation Department takeover of city finances.
Ironically, the city contends that a loss in court might lead to the very disorder contemplated in the law. “The city determined that maintaining its already skeletal public safety staffing levels better preserved the general welfare of its citizens than imposing mass layoffs so that the fewer remaining public safety employees could receive pay raises,” the city’s lawsuit reads.
A union win could mean layoffs. That’s why the union considers even a victory in court to be a hollow one in the real world.
The fact remains, North Las Vegas does face a financial crisis, one of the rare facts to which both union and city agree. If no more money is to be had, both sides will have to negotiate a solution — unions will have to give concessions, but so will the city. The city’s resolution and the union’s lawsuit are simply weapons in that rhetorical battle. Because we’ve yet to pass a law that allows us to get blood from a stone.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.