Phoenix ‘release time’ gets another whack in court

Taxpayers should get something in return for their money. Is that so much to ask?

When it comes to public-employee union contracts allowing for so-called “release time,” two courts have now ruled there is little to no public benefit provided to taxpayers in exchange for the $1.7 million cost of releasing Phoenix police officers to do union work.

The Arizona Constitution specifically prohibits public institutions like cities from giving or loaning “its credit” — meaning money — to private individuals or corporations.

Phoenix is a public institution. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association is a private organization representing officers. Little of what PLEA does can be construed as providing direct value to taxpayers.

Among all the Phoenix public-sector unions, PLEA has been the most aggressive over the years at maximizing the number of officers released to perform union work at public expense.

Besides using that time to negotiate contracts, PLEA has been extremely active on the political front, including lobbying council members to oust police chiefs not to their liking and against council members who failed to toe their line.

Like any citizen, every Phoenix officer has the right to petition their government. They simply shouldn’t expect the public to pay for it.

It is worth noting that an Arizona Court of Appeals court panel did not conclude that release time, per se, is unconstitutional. It is unconstitutional when public employees are released to conduct business that has no public benefit.

PLEA’s reaction to the decision highlights that distinction, suggesting the next contract negotiations could be interesting.

In a statement, union leaders argued that the judges merely found that the union’s obligations to the city “were inadequately spelled out” and that once that little oversight is corrected, well, everyone can get back to business as usual.

Not quite.

The judges found that the release-provisions in PLEA’s contract with the city were vague precisely because few of the duties the union workers perform can be translated honestly into a benefit to taxpayers. Negotiating contracts is a benefit to union members, not to the public. The same holds for lobbying for union-preferred legislation, conspiring to get police chiefs fired and defending officers accused of misbehavior.

If the union’s response to the ruling is any indication, come next negotiating session we will see all of those above activities — and much, much more — redefined as activities of supposedly enormous public benefit, worthy of taking police officers off the streets and into the union offices for hundreds of work-hours each year.

And that is the most objectionable part of PLEA’s pursuit of taxpayer-paid “release time.” These are police officers we are talking about, in a city with a shortage of offices. How is it even possible to argue Phoenix residents are better served by having sworn officers out of their squad cars for 1,859 hours (performing “legitimate association business”) over the two-year life of the last PLEA contract?

The appeals court decision rightfully and refreshingly found for Phoenix residents on this one. PLEA leaders grossly overreached with their release-time demands at contract time. And the Phoenix council irresponsibly let them have their way.

And this is the proper price to pay for it.

http://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/editorial/2015/08/11/phoenix-release-time-ruling/31488177/