Auburn’s new police union is ready to negotiate its first contract, but it’s not clear who will be sitting on the other side of the table.
Selectmen say it is their responsibility to negotiate from the town side, but police commissioners say it’s their job to hammer out a contract with the new union, and lawyers are being called in to find an answer to the dispute.
Selectmen want a committee made up of Town Administrator William “Bill” Herman, Police Chief Edward Picard and a member of the Auburn Police Commission to represent the town.
“The key is going to be to get the different departments to work together,” said Russell Sullivan, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “But, for now, they are all taking the time to understand their different responsibilities.”
Steven Arnold, a retired Portsmouth detective who is the new union representative for Auburn, said he had heard the selectmen were trying to limit the commission’s role in collective bargaining.
“The commission dictates who negotiates for the town, and selects and appoints the team, not the selectmen,” Arnold wrote.
Paul Sanderson, an attorney for the Local Government Center, also has weighed in on the question.
“It appears to be the province of the police commission to conduct the negotiations, since the commissioners determine the compensation and rules necessary for the operation of the police force,” Sanderson wrote in a letter responding to questions from the commission. “The voters of the town have entrusted the police commission with this responsibility by voting to form the Police Commission.”
Police Commission Chairman David Dion called a special meeting on Aug. 21 to discuss the letters from Sanderson and Arnold. Dion said the two outside opinions suggest that the Auburn Police Commission’s rights were being “stepped upon.”
However, according to the town administrator, the police commission isn’t responsible for collective bargaining, at least in Auburn.
“State labor law gives that authority to the selectmen,” said Herman.
Herman said the difference between Auburn and towns where police commissions do negotiate police contracts is that those communities have town charters that specifically give the responsibility of collective bargaining to the commission. Auburn, which does not have a charter, operates under state laws.
But according to Douglas Ingersoll, the executive director of the state’s Public Employees Labor Relations Board, the issue may not be that clear cut.
Ingersoll said he was unable to offer an opinion since the dispute could eventually land on his desk to be resolved. However, Ingersoll said the laws and ordinances were gray enough to be open to a certain amount of interpretation.
The police commission voted 2-1 to spend $2,000 to hire a lawyer to research the question of who has the responsibility to negotiate with the police union. Dion and Kenneth Robinson voted in favor of asking for another legal opinion while Dennis McCarthy voted against the proposal.