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News & Noteworthy

Meriden councilors were unaware of police contract change

Dan Ivers and Mary Ellen Godin
Posted: Monday, May 7, 2012 7:19 pm

MERIDEN — City councilors say they were unaware of changes to the police contract last year that removed a 60-day cap on overtime pay for officers on administrative duty or leave, and some are taking steps to ensure they will not be surprised again.

The changes allow officers taken off their regular assignments because of on-duty incidents to collect weekly overtime equal to the average they received over the previous six months for as long as they remain on administrative duty or leave provided there is no reason to believe they committed a serious policy violation or crime.

The changes were finalized on April 26, 2011. One week earlier, Officer Evan Cossette, son of Chief Jeffry Cossette, had been placed on administrative duty after allegations of brutality drew the attention of state and federal authorities.

City labor contracts require approval from the City Council before going into effect, but the police contract changes were not subject to a vote, and councilors Monday said they were not made aware of them. City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior and Personnel Director Caroline Beitman have called the move a clarification in language, rather than a policy amendment and they said the council did not need to vote on it.

A majority of councilors, however, say they disagree. Majority Leader Brian P. Daniels called the alterations “substantial,” and said he believed it should have been brought to a vote.

“I wasn’t aware of it one way or another. It’s something we’re going to be looking into and the nature of the change. They shouldn’t be making substantive changes,” he said.

We The People party member Walter Shamock said he had received numerous calls about police overtime spending from constituents, and said the closed-door deal raised serious questions.

“When I voted for the contract I put my faith in the city manager and the personnel director,” he said. “It concerns me. It’s not a good deal for the city.”

Republican Dan Brunet, a member of the Ad Hoc Labor Relations Committee and the council’s minority leader, said he is in the process of drafting a resolution that would require all changes to the contract to be approved by the council.

“Common sense would say if there are any alterations, it should go back to where it was originally approved,” he said.

Brunet said he objects to unlimited overtime pay for officers on desk duty or leave. In the year since the change in the contract, Evan Cossette has collected more than $50,000 in overtime pay, despite working 40 hours per week.

“I always believe you have to have some sort of time frame, nothing should be infinite,” said Brunet. “If anything proceeds beyond six months, it’s generally something pretty serious.”

The police chief defended the new contract language.

"The Collective Bargaining Agreement establishes overtime as a property right to union members,” Chief Cossette said in an email Monday. “An administrator cannot remove a property right without due process of law... If an officer has to take a life in the performance of his sworn duty, it should not affect his ability to provide for his family. Police officers do not have the option of retreating when faced with deadly force."

Councilor Bob Williams Jr., of the We The People party, said he would have liked to have been informed of the changes, whether informally or through the formal voting process, if only to be able to better answer questions from the public.

“I think it’s critically important that we get at least the Cliff Notes and the high points,” he said. “Particularly with this case, I would much rather be informed.”

Democrat Hilda Santiago said many councilors have raised questions about allowing officers on administrative leave or duty to collect overtime. However, she objected to the idea of bringing contract changes up for a full vote, saying the Ad Hoc Labor Committee was created to avoid the slow process of voting on the dozens of contract changes made each year.

“It’s like we’re micromanaging,” she said. “We have a labor committee that’s supposed to be informed. If they’re not informed then the staff isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Kendzior said that current practice does not require language changes to go before the council, and that last year’s change was “an agreement that had language in it that was attractive to both sides.”

The new language removes the 60-day cap for officers placed on desk duty or leave under departmental policy for incidents such as using their weapons in the line of duty, except when the police chief and personnel director believe the officer “has committed a serious policy violation or crime which could result in a suspension of more than 30 days or termination, or has been charged with a violent felony or domestic violence crime while off-duty.”

Overtime can be withheld in these cases and is repaid only if the employee is cleared or receives a suspension of less than 30 days.

Kendzior and Beitman have stated that the change last year was spurred by a grievance by Officer Donald Huston, who was one of two officers to ask for an investigation into alleged favoritism for Evan Cossette the month prior.

Huston’s grievance, filed by the police union, took issue with his lack of overtime pay while on administrative leave for 45 days between November and December 2010, when the department was investigating an excessive force charge against him filed by Chief Cossette. On Monday, Huston said he had made no objection to the 60-day cap, since his leave did not exceed the limit. The grievance was dismissed on the same day the language was changed.

Democrat Trevor Thorpe, who served on the Ad Hoc Labor Relations Committee at the time of the change, said it was necessary to address concerns expressed in the grievance.

“The initial contract was clear, but it was overwritten by a grievance. There was an officer aggrieving the time limit. It changed that for all contracts,” said Thorpe, a retired police officer. “The decision was essentially taken out of our hands.”

A copy of the grievance obtained by the Record-Journal on Monday makes no reference to the 60-day limit. It recommended only that Huston be returned to full duty and be paid the average overtime he would have received during his 45 days on leave.

Most councilors declined to speculate on the timing of the change, which came in the early days of investigations surrounding Evan Cossette by the FBI, state police and an independent attorney hired by the city. More than a year later, all three probes continue.

We The People party member Walter Shamock said he had received numerous calls about police overtime spending from constituents, and said the closed-door deal raised serious questions.

“When I voted for the contract I put my faith in the city manager and the personnel director,” he said. “It concerns me. It’s not a good deal for the city.”

 

 

 


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