San Bernardino Bankruptcy: Judge Rules City Can Reject Police Contract

RIVERSIDE, CA – A federal judge in San Bernardino’s bankruptcy case ruled Tuesday that the city can reject its bargaining agreement with the city’s police union.

The city first asked for the power to reject the agreement in March 2013, so that it could impose a new contract that would leave more money in its coffers as it struggles to put together a workable post-bankruptcy budget — and less money, by extension, in police officers’ paychecks.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury said she was not deciding whether the city may legally make union members pay part of their pension costs. San Bernardino Police Officers Association attorney Ron Oliner contends that such “cost-sharing” violates state law and said the union intends to press “substantial” claims for rejection damages and an administrative claim.

Tuesday’s decision mirrors Jury’s September ruling that the city could reject its contract with firefighters. Jury explicitly said then that she was not blessing the city’s plan to impose a contract on firefighters to replace the one she was rejecting.

But a month later, Mayor Carey Davis broke a City Council tie to impose a contract on the fire union, which is suing the city on several related fronts.

In a filing arguing for Tuesday’s decision, the city says that five of its seven unions agreed to “modifications” including paying half of the cost of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, with the fire and police unions resisting.

“As Mr. (consultant Michael) Busch pointed out in his most recent declaration, absent those modifications, the City would have continued to run a deficit in its General Fund,” the city’s attorneys wrote, while the Police Officers Association did not agree to the new Memorandum of Understanding. “Clearly, the POA MOU is a burden on the City and its ability to reorganize.”

For more than a year, the city and union agreed to put off a hearing on whether it could reject the police contract as the two sides worked with a mediator to come to a consensus.

They trumpeted a tentative agreement in August, without listing details, but by October it broke down over a “misinterpretation” that left both sides accusing the other of trying to change the terms of the contract.

Under its city charter, the city may not directly reduce police or firefighter pay. Despite an effort supported by many city officials to change that, through Measure Q, citizens voted in November to continue setting pay as the average of 10 like-sized cities.

Oliner, who said he didn’t want to waste members’ money or add to the $9 million the city has spent on bankruptcy-related services, nonetheless disputed several of the city’s assertions.

“We intend to show a police officer in the city of San Bernardino isn’t paid reasonably compared to similar cities or nearby cities,” he said.

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