No one can accuse Galveston’s police union of being bashful. One need only look at an embarrassing billboard the union commissioned declaring the island “Home of the Worst Police Retirement in Texas,” which was a statement about a long, heated battle between the Galveston police pension board and the city over an ailing pension system.
The billboard, over the northbound lane of Interstate 45 near the intersection with state Highway 146, went up in January at a time when the department was working to recruit more experienced officers. It’s still up, although everybody seemed to agree the pension had been improved with a locally bargained deal the state legislature approved more than a month ago.
Union President Geoff Gainer on Wednesday told The Daily News the union had ordered a new sign that will say, “We Thank you For Your Support.”
So, it’s clear the police union doesn’t mind using highly public, hardball tactics to get its point across and sway public opinion. In that context, it’s not clear why the Galveston Municipal Police Association, which plans during contract negotiations to ask taxpayers for higher salaries, would be shy about collectively bargaining on TV.
The bargaining meetings will begin today at the Galveston Park Board of Trustees plaza, 601 23rd St., which was a compromise venue.
The most recent sessions were held at the San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center, 5222 Seawall Blvd., where the municipal police association holds its regular meetings.
But for years, the two sides had sat down at city hall for contract talks. And the city wanted to return the sessions to city hall and to broadcast the proceedings, Deputy City Manager Dan Buckley said.
Public meetings often are broadcast on the city’s public TV and internet channels.
“Since the meetings are public, the city believes it is imperative that the meetings are conducted in a public facility,” Buckley said.
Although the meetings will be public, held in a public venue and recorded with audio equipment, they won’t be broadcast from the park board building.
Sure, anyone willing to invest the time could file a public records request for the audio recordings. But that’s a tedious and unfair burden on the general public footing the bill for public services the police provide.
The police union didn’t want the meetings broadcast, but didn’t oppose convening bargaining meetings at the park board building, Gainer said. The association didn’t want the meeting held at city hall.
“Negotiation 101 is you try to have it on some type of a neutral ground,” Gainer said.
The only thing that’s changed about city hall since the bargaining sessions were last held there is installation of TV equipment, however.
Televised meetings for all the honest world to see would benefit both sides in showing that both are bargaining in good faith.
This year’s bargaining comes on the heels of state legislation that restructured the police pension, in large part by increasing the public contribution by more than $350,000 to $2.18 million from $1.82 million, according to city officials.
Officers want a pay increase to bring them up to par with other area departments, Gainer said. And they want extra pay for working on holidays.
The union should argue its case openly and directly to its members’ employer — the taxpayers.
The cost to taxpayers for public safety is substantial — $33.2 million, which includes costs for the fire department and emergency management, among other expenses, according to city records. Of that, $20.7 million goes to the police department, according to the records.
The union has an absolute right and responsibility to argue for higher pay.
But the taxpayers have the right to view the bargaining.
Police unions hold more power than most public-sector unions, because no one — conservatives or liberals — wants to appear to disrespect first-responders.
There’s a lot of emotion attached to first responders, for good reason, which is why even generally conservative politicians tend to give police and firefighter unions a pass. Police typically walk into bargaining with a lot of Love Ya Blue clout that other public-sector employees just aren’t afforded and representatives of the taxpayers have the unenviable task of crossing that blue line with very little vocal or moral support from the public. No one wants to be seen fraternizing in the anti-first-responder camp.
The police union, as it bargains, should openly argue and justify its demands for better compensation and prove the level of pay and benefits it’s seeking is sustainable within the public budget. It should also show, in good faith, a willingness for cooperation and collaboration that could result in cost savings and efficiencies for the city and the public it serves if financial realities call for that.
And the city’s representatives should show taxpayers what they are doing to avoid bloated spending without eroding public safety.
The discussions are likely to be heated, but it’s hard to see how either side would lose by televising the bargaining. Whatever the outcome, both sides wouldn’t have to worry about second-hand information, interpretations and points lost in translation. There are several days of bargaining. Televise them.
• Laura Elder