PHOENIX — Arguing that release time “diverts precious resources from the core public safety mission to ‘union business,’” the Goldwater Institute today asked the Maricopa County Superior Court to enjoin provisions that allow the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) to use thousands of hours of police time — including six full-time positions — for its own purposes.
The Institute represents two Phoenix taxpayers, William Cheatham and Marcus Huey, who allege that this use of their tax dollars violates the Arizona Constitution’s Gift Clause, which forbids subsidies to private entities. In a previous lawsuit, the Institute successfully argued in the Arizona Supreme Court that subsidies to private developers are unconstitutional.
The City estimates the annual cost of release time for the police union at $1 million. The City’s practice of giving release time to its seven public employee unions was documented last September in a Goldwater Institute investigative report by Mark Flatten. The Legislature, which previously acted to prohibit release time by school districts, is considering a bill that would largely curtail the practice by municipalities.
In a document exchanged in its secret negotiations with PLEA over the current police contract, the City argued that release time provisions reduce “funds available for mission critical functions that provide a direct benefit to the citizens of Phoenix,” and they provide “taxpayer funding to decrease the efficiency of City Government.” Although the union provides representation to officers in official proceedings, release time also is used for lobbying—sometimes contrary to the City’s own positions — and can be used for union office staffing, collecting petition signatures for ballot measures, and any other purposes the union deems “legitimate Association business.”
Full-time release positions report to work at the union headquarters rather than the Police Department. The current PLEA president, Joe Clure, has been on release time for 14 years. He and the other full-time release positions collect full salary and benefits, qualify for pensions, and receive automatic overtime despite performing union business full-time. The City does not require officers to report what they do on release time.
“Paying city staffers to perform union business is an illegal scam,” declared Clint Bolick, the Institute’s vice president for litigation and lead lawyer in the case. “What’s worse, the diversion of police officers to union business threatens public safety. It’s time this scheme came to an end.”
The City currently is negotiating a new contract with PLEA. The Institute argues in its motion that an injunction would provide important guidance to City officials to help them conform future public employee contracts to the Arizona Constitution.