State hearing begins on breakup of city’s police union

Bainbridge Island Police Chief Matthew Hamner answers questions during the Public Employment Relations Commission hearing at city hall.  - Brian Kelly | Bainbridge Island Review
Bainbridge Island Police Chief Matthew Hamner answers questions during the Public Employment Relations Commission hearing at city hall.
— image credit: Brian Kelly | Bainbridge Island Review

Amid repeated objections from the police guild’s attorney, Bainbridge Island officials began laying out their case to a state hearing examiner about why the police department’s lieutenants should be jettisoned from the city’s police union.

Bainbridge police formed a union in 1998, and the police officer’s guild represents less than 20 uniformed police officers.

The union has become increasingly strident in recent years, however, and some on Bainbridge blame the Bainbridge Island Police Guild and its “vote of no confidence” in the city’s last police chief for his ouster in 2012.

During that same period of turmoil, employees within the union, as well as city officials and others on the outside, have said the makeup of the union — which includes lieutenants as well as line officers — has created a dysfunctional department where lieutenants have controlled the union but have also created a climate where accountability is lacking, poor morale is rampant and flagrant incidents of insubordination go unchecked.

Members of the rank and file, who are supervised by the lieutenants but rely on them as union leaders, have been afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation.

That troublesome arrangement — which has been noted by outside consultants brought in to review the police department — led to the recommendation last year by a law enforcement expert that the city’s  four lieutenants should be removed from the police guild.

Work to do just that has been gaining steam since September. The city filed a petition with the Public Employment Relations Commission, the agency that handles disputes involving public employees, to have the lieutenants removed from the union that represents line officers.

Two weeks ago, the commission began its fact-finding hearing.

It was acrimonious from the start.

Sofia Mabee, the city’s attorney, asked the PERC examiner to consider whether the lieutenants not only are supervisors but also qualify as confidential employees.

Guild attorney Jeffrey Julius vigorously objected, and complained of the “12th hour” notice and said it would put them in an “impossible position” and a “terrible disadvantage.”

“This is totally unfair,” he said.

The examiner, though, agreed to allow the city to amend its petition.

Mabee then presented the basics of the city’s position; the lieutenants primarily serve as supervisors and spend a small amount of their time working the street or doing police work.

The lieutenants assign specific work talks, prepare the officers’ work schedules, prepare employee evaluations, approve overtime and time-off requests, and make recommendations on new hires.

Mabee also noted the consultant reports in 2013 that detailed the problems that came to pass with lieutenants not only being supervisors, but also members of the rank-and-file union, and the audit that showed it had created “substantial discord between the two ranks” and the suppression of complaints.

Since new Chief Matthew Hamner joined the department in 2013, she added, the lieutenants have become even more involved in high-level management decisions.

The lieutenants have done their best to walk the line between being a supervisor and a union member, she concluded, but it wasn’t fair to the lieutenants or their underlings to keep them in that position.

Three employees of the department, and later, Chief Hamner, were called to testify about the role of the lieutenants during the first day of the hearing on March 13 at city hall.

In the audience were the department’s three remaining lieutenants; Bob Day, Chris Jensen and Denise Giuntoli. (The city’s fourth lieutenant, Phil Hawkins had earlier tendered his resignation.)

Hamner began by noting the awkward position the dispute over the union had put him in.

“I just want to point out that sitting here is uncomfortable for me,” Hamner said, noting the lieutenants watching the hearing.

He praised them as “phenomenal.”

“They have worked very hard. We’ve been through a lot in nine months.

To have the people here that have busted their backsides for me and for me to sit up here is pretty uncomfortable,” Hamner said.

Hamner said the lieutenants have many supervisory duties, including approving vacation requests and overtime for the line officers.

Requests for training also goes to a lieutenant for approval, he said.

The lieutenants also have the ability to call in officers for work, and are expected to resolve conflicts between other officers.

“They manage the department a lot more than I do as far as the hands-on,” Hamner said.

The hearing will continue in mid-April.

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