A three-member state commission has affirmed a decision that the Seattle City Attorney’s acted properly when it ended a longstanding contract with a private law firm and instead opted to handle in-house much of the defense of police officers who need legal representation.
The unanimous ruling by the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) panel, issued Thursday, stemmed from an an appeal brought by Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) of an earlier finding by a PERC examiner.
The examiner, Emily H. Martin, found last year that the change was not a mandatory subject of bargaining as alleged by the guild, and that the city’s action fell within its “management prerogatives.”
The guild filed a complaint in 2011 after City Attorney Pete Holmes announced he was not renewing the city’s contract of nearly 40 years with the Seattle law firm Stafford Frey Cooper. The firm no longer exists under that name.
Under the new approach, police officers in legal trouble are primarily represented by the City Attorney’s Office or, in some cases, outside counsel hired through competitive bidding. Included is complex litigation alleging misconduct, wrongful arrest, wrongful death, excessive use of force and violations of federal civil rights.
Holmes estimated at the time that the city would save an estimated $800,000 annually.
The guild, in its complaint, alleged the change interfered with employee rights.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of SPOG, previously has said the unfair-labor-practice complaint was necessary because the guild’s contract requires the city to follow “past practice” in matters of police litigation. O’Neill also maintained the contract indicates the city was required to retain Stafford Frey Cooper to represent police.
Martin, in her decision, cited the guild’s “assumption” that an in-house attorney would provide inferior representation than Stafford Frey Cooper.
But the City Attorney’s Office has filled its in-house positions with experienced attorneys whose work hasn’t been shown to be of less quality, Martin wrote, noting that the city planned to bring 75 percent of the police-action legal representation in-house.