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Union blasts Cape Coral on cop wages

Pay-us-back demand 'stealing,' it argues

Dec. 13, 2010


1:10 A.M. — Cape Coral's police union says it's illegal for the city to force 11 officers to repay $96,000 in raises tied to college credits those officers never earned.

"They can't just go and start stealing money back from the employee," said Gene Gibbons, the union's attorney.

The officers each owe between $3,600 and $23,000.

Gibbons sent a letter to the city on Monday outlining the union's position.

He said if the city goes ahead with a plan to start drawing the money from officers’ paychecks next month, he will seek an injunction from Florida’s Public Employee Relations Commission, which handles possible violations of labor law for state workers.

Gibbons said he hopes the union and city can come to an agreement over the negotiating table. But if that doesn’t happen, Gibbons said the city can’t just impose its will unilaterally.

“The resolution’s going to have to be negotiated with the union,” he said.

If initial negotiations fail, Gibbons said, an impasse is declared and a mediator is brought in. If an agreement is still beyond reach, a special magistrate is assigned by the state’s employee relations commission.

Union: Clause illegal

If that doesn’t produce an agreement, the City Council would rule on the issue, Gibbons said.

At the heart of the issue, Gibbons said, is that the pre-employment agreements signed by the officers — which required them to complete 15 credits a year toward an associate’s degree — are illegal because the union never agreed to them.

Councilman Bill Deile, however, said it doesn’t matter whether the union approved them because the officers weren’t employed at the time.

“They’re not covered by the union when they’re not hired,” Deile said.

“I personally believe that they signed an agreement and they should be held to it,” he said.

“It’s a contract, simple as that.”

City spokeswoman Connie Barron said it would be inappropriate to comment while negotiations are ongoing.

Interim police Chief Jay Murphy will not comment on specific claims because of the legal issues, but said: “We will let the attorneys speak to it and try and get a resolution.”

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The city’s labor attorney, John Hament, did not return a message Monday.

Gibbons pointed to what he calls in his letter an eerily similar case from 1988 in the city of Hollywood, Fla.

In that case, according to Gibbons, the state’s employment relations commission ruled that pre-employment agreements mandating city employees obtain advanced paramedic certifications interfered with the union’s status as the sole negotiating body for its members.

Gibbons’ letter also calls the city’s refusal to accommodate officers who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan unconscionable.

“There’s absolutely no consideration for the fact that these guys had to leave the country to fight a foreign war,” Gibbons said. “Certainly, you can’t get a college degree when you’re in the mountains of Afghanistan.”

No initiative

Though the city has declined comment, Deile, who completed college credits while serving in the Vietnam War, maintains the officers had the opportunity to attend school before and after deployment.

He said they may have been eligible to apply for credits for military service and completion of the police academy as well.

“None of them had the initiative to do that,” Deile said.

The city’s current plan, outlined in letters sent to the 11 officers last week, will go into effect in January.

The city will roll back the officers’ salaries to levels that correspond to the number of college credits they have earned, dock another 10 percent of their pay for the breach of contract, and begin deducting the amount the officers owe from their paychecks.

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