No collusion, but definitely problems in Metro arbitration

Let’s start with the things everybody agrees on in the now-infamous Las Vegas police arbitration case.

First, everybody agrees the final award is legal and binding. That means no matter what irregularities, broken laws or flawed procedures took place during the session, the $6.9 million salary-and-benefits award to the Police Protective Association isn’t going to change. (The amount rises to $11.6 million if you include the restoration of longevity and merit pay.)

Second, everybody agrees a very important rule was broken: Although NRS 288.215(9) required both police management and the officers union to “submit a single written statement containing its final offer for each of the unresolved issues,” that step was never followed. In fact, the final offers from both Metro and the union apparently were made verbally to the arbitrator, and not while a tape recorder was running.

Third, now everyone seems to agree that while the rules weren’t followed, it wasn’t the result of a conspiracy.

Earlier this month, Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak told the Review-Journal’s Ben Botkin that he suspected Metro had colluded with the police union to arrive at a final award before arbitration even took place. “Something was worked out along the way,” Sisolak said at the time. “It just seems like they’re playing loose and easy with the rules.”

On Monday, Sisolak denied he said the department “colluded” with the union; instead, he said the process failed to follow the law. “I never said there was collusion. I think there was a total lack of transparency and there were red flags,” Sisolak said Monday, at a meeting of the Metro Fiscal Affairs Committee. After the meeting, however, he said “I want to believe that there was no nefarious activity involved.”

That sounds a little bit like he thinks there may have been some nefarious activity involved.

For his part, Sheriff Doug Gillespie is also changing his tune a bit: After the original charge of collusion was published in the Review-Journal, he held a news conference in front of police headquarters and called Sisolak out: “None of those allegations are true, or even close to being true,” Gillespie said. “I question openly today, at the County Commission chairmanship level, what level of leadership is being demonstrated there.”

Gillespie also defended the arbitration process, saying the rules were followed. But on Monday, he freely admitted he’d been mistaken about that. At his news conference, he’d unnecessarily “made it personal,” and he apologized.

Still, Gillespie said, “I want to make it clear: There was no collusion. There were no deals being made.”

There’s no question that the arbitration process broke down. It’s not as bad as county counsel Mary-Anne Miller argued in an Oct. 15 memo, nor as entirely rosy as PPA lawyers responded in a reply memo. Sisolak was right to raise legitimate questions about the process, although it’s impossible to sustain any allegations of collusion by the sheriff or the union (even if Sisolak didn’t use the actual word, he certainly implied it in his remarks).

One possible remedy to the problem has already been suggested, by state Sen. Michael Roberson in 2011. His idea was to do away with binding arbitration for public employees entirely, and assign the final task of deciding contracts to local government leaders.

In that system, unions and government managers would negotiate contracts, which would be brought to city councils, county commissions and school boards for ratification. In the event of an impasse, the dispute would be presented to elected officials, who could choose one offer or pick elements of each. (Currently, arbitrators must choose either offer but can’t blend the two.)

While unions would seek to influence elected officials through campaign donations and grass-roots help, those officials would also feel pressure to keep contracts in line for fear of public anger. We elect those people to manage the public purse; if Roberson’s plan were law, there would be no more blaming arbitrators for generous contract awards.

Bottom line: We’d have more transparency and more accountability.

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 ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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