STOCKTON, CA – A pair of Stockton police union leaders have been cleared of insubordination charges three years after a flare-up with then-Police Chief Blair Ulring over their role in selling beer for charity at a weekend motorcycle race held at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds.
Officer Steve Leonesio, past president of the Stockton Police Officers’ Association, and Detective Mark McLaughlin, a union board member, organized and set up the beer booth one weekend in October 2010.
Ulring prohibited the union from selling beer, which led to Leonesio and McLaughlin being suspended from work without pay.
But the dispute has ended with an arbitrator finding that Ulring mishandled the situation. The city was ordered to award officers their pay withheld as punishment.
Union attorney David E. Mastagni on Monday called the ruling by arbitrator Fred D’Orazio an act of vindication in a long-drawn-out feud between the city and the police union.
“The taint the city tried to put on their careers has been erased,” Mastagni said. “The city insisted on going forward with the discipline on these two guys. … It was certainly personal on the city’s end.”
According to the 22-page decision, which was dated Oct. 23, Ulring told the union heads he didn’t want officers selling beer in case they sold to a minor or if a customer were arrested for drunken driving.
Either case would cast a bad light on the department, Ulring feared.
But Ulring didn’t order the beer booth to be canceled. Rather, he gave vague suggestions orally that the union have friends and relatives sell the beer in the place of police officers.
Ulring also gave no advance written order to the union heads, creating a blurred line between what he allowed and prohibited, the ruling said.
“If Ulring truly had the concerns, … he should have said so in clear and unambiguous language,” the arbitrator’s ruling said. “Instead, he issued an ambiguous and confusing order.”
The first morning of the event, Ulring sent Lt. James Pickins to the fairgrounds with a written order. But Pickins couldn’t give the order to Leonesio unless he violated it by stepping behind the counter.
Leonesio stepped behind the counter, but only to receive a copy of the order to fight later, the ruling said, adding that Leonesio nor any union member sold or poured beer or tended bar on either of the two days at issue.
For his part, McLaughlin was disciplined for spending 10 to 15 minutes on duty to file a temporary license with the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control.
The dispute came early in a full-blown battle between the union and then-City Manager Bob Deis, which resulted in lawsuits and public name-calling.
Citing retaliation over the beer controversy, the police union sued the city over the suspensions of Leonesio and McLaughlin, a suit that was later dismissed by San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Carter P. Holly.
The police union next issued a vote of no confidence against Ulring, who had also served and purchased alcohol at similar events to the police union’s, the arbitrator’s decision said.
Some 10 months after the motorcycle races at the fairgrounds, Leonesio was suspended from work for 10, 10-hour shifts. McLaughlin was suspended for two, 10-hour workdays. The arbitrator reversed the sanctions.
McLaughlin, who remains on the union board, said he was happy to have his record cleared of the insubordination charge. He chalked it up to politics.
This was a strategy orchestrated by Deis to keep the police union and its attorneys distracted from the more serious issues of negotiating a contract, McLaughlin said, adding that it worked.
“I’ve been raising money for charities as a police officer for 20 years, and now all of a sudden you want to do something about it,” he said. “There was only one thing behind this, and it was politics.”
Leonesio said the ruling makes it clear the police union has a right to raise money to benefit Stockton children.
“We’ve done it way before and since,” he said. “The ruling shows the membership and our board and the city that we’re allowed to do fundraising events.”
Ulring could not be reached Monday for comment. City spokeswoman Connie Cochran and Officer Joe Silva, a spokesman for the Police Department, both declined to comment.
From The Stockton Record