Nebraska Supreme Court ruling cements Omaha police union victory in contract dispute

The Nebraska Supreme Court has upheld a decision that kept the Omaha police union’s contract in effect after its end date, cementing a union victory.

In affirming the lower court’s decision, the court described part of the city’s case as “absurd” and a lack of written documentation as “inexplicable.”

The police contract expired at the end of 2013. A clause said it would stay in effect, unchanged, if the two sides did not say they wanted to open negotiations before April 1.

That was fine by the union, led by President John Wells.

But the city, led by negotiator Mark McQueen, wanted to renegotiate pension contributions, a special retirement program and a policy on take-home cars.

The two sides did have discussions both before and after the April 1 deadline, according to the court decision.

But the court said that what those talks meant, and what time period they covered, was unclear.

On Feb. 27, 2014, Wells told McQueen he wanted to let the contract’s provisions roll over.

On March 19, 2014, McQueen and Wells spoke over the phone. McQueen said the city would be willing to extend the contract if the union would negotiate the city’s three issues.

The city claimed that conversation kicked off negotiations, meaning the contract could no longer automatically roll over.

The court didn’t buy it, calling that line of thinking “absurd.”

McQueen took issue with that characterization.

“I think the Supreme Court, in using language like that, misses the context of the discussions,” he said.

The court questioned the lack of documentation from that conversation.

“The City did not memorialize or confirm this communication in a subsequent writing. For the sake of record-keeping, this is inexplicable,” the court wrote.

McQueen said it would be unreasonably costly to document every meeting he has with union representatives.

The two sides met several times in April and once in May to discuss the same three issues.

At no point in those conversations did Wells tell McQueen that the union had taken the position that the contract had already rolled over, the court wrote.

Also in those meetings, neither side specified whether they were discussing changes for 2014 or for another year.

On April 17, 2014, McQueen sent written notice to Wells. That notice also lacked any reference to the year in question.

“Inexplicably, neither party specified the year to which the notice applied,” the court wrote.

McQueen and his firm, Baird Holm, are paid $315 per hour to handle the city’s negotiations with its seven labor unions.

McQueen has successfully negotiated contracts, many including pension and health-care reform, with all of the city’s other labor unions.

Wells did not return calls for comment.

McQueen said the decision is maddening.

“The city was trying to negotiate and make progress. The union did that for a while, then said, ‘We’re done.’ And they did it in a sneaky, deceptive way,” he said.