Disagreement on contract language drives wedge between police union and town officials

Disagreement on contract language drives wedge between police union and town officials

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WESTERLY — Questions of how and when the town’s police officers should be paid for special and private duty — work that is either paid for by private organizations or by the town from funds other than those allotted to the Westerly Police Department — are continuing to drive a wedge between the police union and town officials.

The union filed eight grievances in 2017 and seven in 2016. Most of the grievances are pending and unresolved. Anthony Alicchio, a patrolman and president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 503, said during a recent interview that several of the grievances involve the section of the police contract involving special duty and private duty pay.

Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy acknowledged that there was “a misunderstanding over contract language and intent that both parties do not agree with.” Kennedy, who started his job in October 2015, declined to comment further. When asked whether the number of grievances filed since 2016 is high, he replied, “I am not aware of past filed grievances to determine if those filed in 2016 are to be considered ‘high.’”

The current three-year contract was approved in October 2016 and was retroactive to July 1 of that year.  One of the grievances was recently settled when an arbitrator ruled that the town must pay $13,770 to officers as back pay for special and private duty work performed under the former contract between July 1, 2016, and Oct. 28, 2016, the day the current contract was approved. The pay for special and private duty increased to $45 per hour from $38 per hour in the current contract.

The town had argued that the new rate should apply from the day the new contract was approved, but arbitrator John Cochran, who practices law in Maine, disagreed. During hearings conducted by Cochran, then-acting Police Chief Shawn Lacey, who previously served as union president for 20 years, said the union and the town had always agreed to an effective date for private detail pay increases, with varying effective dates ranging from July 1 to the dates the agreements were ratified. Lacey also testified that he had advised Kennedy and Human Resources Director Joshua Putman to propose an effective date for the private duty pay rate increase but they did not do so.

Cochran, who was selected from a list of arbitrators maintained by the American Arbitration Association, focused on the duration clause of the contract, which states that it was to be effective from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2019. Absent specified exceptions, Cochran said, the entire agreement was effective on July 1, 2016. While the town argued that the two sides had not reached a “meeting of the minds” on when the new private duty rate began, Cochran said other parts of the agreement pertaining to new life insurance and death-on-duty benefits also lacked a  specified effective date.

Kennedy had also argued that the police union knew that a retroactive increase for private duty was not feasible because the organizations and other vendors that contract with the town for the special police coverage pay the town and could not be expected to also pay a retroactive increase.

“Understandably the town is in the difficult position of having to pay the private detail increase retroactively even though it will likely be unable to recoup that money from its vendors. However, as an arbitrator I do not have the authority to relieve either party of its contractual obligation,” Cochran wrote in his decision.

On Dec. 7, Alicchio wrote to the Town Council and requested a meeting between himself, other union representatives and “several members of the council.”

“The grievance process is to be used as a last resort to resolve issues. The members of this union feel that this is our only means of resolution to issues,” Alicchio wrote.

Cochran was paid $5,880 for his work on the special duty pay grievance. Former Town Attorney Matthew Oliverio also billed the town for his work on the case. The town’s new lawyer, William Conley Jr., has also billed the town for work on some of the grievances.

The town’s legal bills are posted on the municipal website but do not provide case-by-case detail. Kennedy said the town would not release the exact amount of Oliverio’s total pay on the private duty grievance, claiming the information is exempt from disclosure. The town has also declined to release the grievances, claiming they are part of the collective bargaining process and therefore exempt from disclosure under the state’s Access to Public Records Act. Alicchio also declined to provide copies of the grievances.

During the interview Alicchio said the union is “looking to resolve these issues without having to file grievances because the process is time consuming and costly. As a resident and taxpayer myself I don’t want to be having to pay for this,” he said.

In response to Alicchio’s request, Council Vice President Mario Celico initially offered to meet with him and the union representatives along with Councilor Jack Carson, the council’s liaison to the police department. But Celico, a former police officer who served as union president for 12 years, said he later changed his mind.

“I realized there is no provision in the grievance procedure for the union to become involved with the council and I informed Officer Alicchio that it would not be proper for myself and Councilor Carson to meet with him,” Celico said.

The grievance process begins with a complaint being filed with the police chief. If the complaint is not resolved, it moves to the town manager. Failure to reach resolution at that level puts the complaint into the arbitration process.

“We will not stand by and watch matters that are not being addressed or are being ignored, deteriorate the morale of the men and women of this department,” Alicchio said in his letter to the council.

If Alicchio wishes to communicate with the council, Celico said he informed him that he is free to distribute information to each of the seven councilors. Regarding the number of grievances, Celico said he was not concerned.

“I don’t see that as an alarming number of grievances. Just because there is a grievance doesn’t mean something wrong has occurred, it just means there is a disagreement,” Celico said.



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