- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 29, 2014

PHOENIX (AP) - A judge on Wednesday permanently blocked Phoenix from paying police officers for doing union work, finding that the practice violates the Arizona Constitution because it doesn’t benefit the public.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper also said her ruling applies to any other contracts the city has with its unions, and blocked the practice in future contracts.

Cooper found that the contract between Phoenix and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association allowed officers on so-called “release time” to do work without supervision that was counter to the city’s interests. She said there could be some work that benefited the city if they are specifically spelled out in a future contract and the union reimburses the city for union-related activities.

“Essentially there were absolutely no controls on how union release time can be used,” said Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation for the Goldwater Institute, which sued over the practice. “And we documented that it is not only used to represent police officers in disciplinary proceedings, but to file hundreds of grievances against the city, to campaign for political candidates, to lobby the Legislature and other activities that are clearly not in the city’s interests.”

Goldwater renewed its challenge after a new contract continued a practice Cooper had previously ruled was illegal. Cooper blocked the provisions of the new contract in April and held a trial in November. Wednesday’s ruling makes that earlier injunction permanent.

Phoenix was paying six full-time officers to handle union work, providing more than 1,800 additional hours of pay into a pool and two more officers to respond to major incidents such as shootings to represent involved officers.

City of Phoenix spokeswoman Toni Maccarone said the city will continue to comply with the judge’s ruling. She said the six full-time officers were reassigned to regular duties after the injunction was issued in April and they’ll continue in those roles.

Councilman Sal DiCiccio, an opponent of release time, said the question now is whether the city complies fully with the ruling or tries to get around it.

“I don’t think that taxpayer money should be used to fund union activity, but giving the history of the city of Phoenix, they always seem to err on the side of the unions,” DiCiccio said. “A lot of the cities do this - so this has statewide implications for sure, if not nationwide implications.”

Police union president Joe Clure was on duty and could not immediately be reached Wednesday. But the union said in a statement after the November trial that limiting release time “has had a devastating impact PLEA’s ability to provide effective representation to its membership.”

Bolick said several other city unions have release time written into their contracts, as do many other cities in the Phoenix area and across the state. But the Phoenix police contract was the most egregious he’s seen, he said.

“What distinguished Phoenix is that there are fewer limits on how release time is used than any other contract we have seen,” he said.

“Representing police officers in disciplinary proceedings, even though the city is not obligated to do that, we think it would permissible to do that. And in that case it would be a payment for service, rather than a blank check,” Bolick said. “But placing city employees at the union’s disposal, that is a flagrant violation of the Constitution.”

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