Discussions between the City of Alice and the Alice Police Officers' Association continued Friday as both sides work towards a new collective bargaining agreement to go in effect at the start of the next fiscal year. The current contract, adopted in 2011, was due to expire on May 31, 2014, but both sides agreed at a previous meeting to amend the contract to coincide with the end of the city's fiscal year on Sept. 31.
Representing the Alice Police Officers' Association were officers David Espinoza, Enrique Saenz and Hector Zertuche along with Perry Hyden, the association's local representative for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) and CLEAT Attorney Celeste Cory. For the City of Alice were Interim City Manager Hector Hinojosa, City Clerk Rene Marshall and Human Resource Manager Diane Lopez. Also representing the City of Alice was attorney Ricardo J. Navarro with Denton, Navarro, Rocha, Bernal, Hyde and Zech, P.C. in Harlingen. During the last meeting, the City of Alice presented its counterproposal to the Association's initial proposal. Navarro said he wanted to use the meeting tie down agreements on articles in the city's counterproposal.
He said a lot of the articles were drawn from agreements that he and Hyden had agreed upon in contracts with other cities and are helpful to both sides. "At least you and I have been over these things before," he said. "Other than any kind of local adjustments or tweaking in house, I'm hoping that we could expedite or work through those fairly quickly.
"So today, what I was hoping we could do is start getting agreements on what is off the table."
Discussions began with articles concerning discipline and the internal investigations process. Navarro said a lot of the Association's ideas and concepts were used in the article.
Cory said her only concern was that while the article guaranteed that an officer would be provided some notice of complaint, it did not specify the number of days before giving a statement they would receive it.
"If you're giving a statement, you need to know what the complaint is about so that you have some guidelines of what they are going to be asking about," she said.
Saenz suggested adding language specifying that the notice of complaint be provided a minimum of 24 hours before the officer must give a written statement, or 48 hours before a recorded statement.
"That ought to resolve the concern that you had," Navarro said. A section concerning substituting vacation time for suspensions of three or less days was also discussed, with Lopez requesting that it include wording specifying that if an officer elects to do so, they are required to work the days for which the suspension is imposed.
Cory said she was fine with the change in wording, but wanted it to be clear that if the officer elects to apply vacation days to the suspension, it is a guaranteed right. Navarro said that was okay as it becomes the officer's choice which path to take, and the decision is then final.
"The officer then accepts the consequences of that provision, so then the officer can decide if they want to appeal (the suspension) or say they're fine working the three days," he said. "The officer is the one at the crossroads that makes the decision."
Articles concerning overtime pay and substance abuse testing were then addressed, followed by a lengthy discussion on holiday pay. As with the previous meeting, the primary concern from the Association was with how to handle observed holidays versus actual holidays, where the city might recognize certain holidays on a different date to allow their employees time off if, for example, the day falls on a weekend.
"In other words, I guess we want to make this article applicable to the premium pay part when they work on the actual holiday on the city schedule," Hyden said. Navarro said for uniformed personnel such as police officers, it would be the actual holiday.
"When you have a 24-7 operation, then it's easy," he said. "The holiday's just the day it is. It doesn't matter if it's on a Saturday or Sunday." Navarro said while the city council will specify the holidays, they do not specify the day of the week on which it might fall.
"The rules for shifting to Monday or Friday don't trigger here," he said. Discussion continued regarding how the article would apply to officers who are on the Monday through Friday administrative schedule, but could be on call during the actual holiday. After both sides split to caucus, the Association agreed to keep it as the actual holiday for all officers.
Other articles discussed included accrued holiday pay hours, insurance and retirement benefits, clothing and equipment, fitness for duty and a promotion proposal from the Alice Police Officers' Association that was not included in the counterproposal.
Regarding promotions, Hyden said the issue was the Association did not feel that Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code gave an adequate assessment of who could be a good supervisor. He said the changes would allow the candidate's oral presentation skills to be put to the test as well. "Simply passing or having high marks on a test does not, in our opinion, qualify someone to be a supervisor," he said.
Cory said the changes would not do away with the testing process. Navarro said Chapter 143 assumes that the candidate has all the skills needed for the position when they pass the test.
"That's the assumption," he said. "We all know that doesn't work that way, but that's what civil service is about. See, the reason civil service is around is to remove the discretionary, arbitrary authority of the Chief to decide who, in fact, is a good promotion candidate.
"Civil service is clear about that. It says the Chief ain't got nothing to say about this. He can bypass the top guy and go to number two, but that's the most the Chief gets to do."
Navarro said while the process would be more democratic, it is also more expensive and involved.
"I'm not saying it won't work," he said. "I just don't know if it's cost effective." "All we're trying to do is better the process and better the candidates," Saenz said.
Discussions continued throughout the afternoon following a lunch break regarding changes to wages that would replace the current step-based system to a more classic model structured using a unified base pay for each rank that can be supplemented with additional pay for seniority and certifications.
Navarro said the proposed wage changes would negatively affect five of the department's officers, but those officers would have their current pay scale grandfathered in.
"The first year, I think that this accomplishes the transition to this model within a cost that we can afford and which minimizes the number of grandfathered people," he said.
Navarro said the way they might be able to get people off grandfather status is through pay increases based on education and certification.
"I think the council is receptive to the idea here in that this is money well spent," he said. "We want an incentive for our officers to get degrees, so we want to create that incentive."
Both sides will meet again Monday, June 9, at 10 a.m. at Alice City Hall to continue collective bargaining discussions on remaining articles.