Crosby police union files lawsuit | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

Crosby police union files lawsuit

Posted: October 31, 2012 - 9:34pm

Teamsters Local 346, the union representative of Crosby Police Department sergeants and patrol officers, filed a lawsuit in Crow Wing County District Court against the city of Crosby and Police Chief Kim Coughlin.

The Teamsters Local 346 reported it is asking the court to stop what the union says are “rampant abuses of employees’ rights” by Coughlin.

Coughlin said she could not comment on the issue at this time. Pat Krueger, city attorney for Crosby, confirmed the suit was filed and forwarded it to the League of Minnesota Cities to determine which one will pick up the legal matter for the city. Krueger denied the allegations concerning Coughlin.

The issue apparently came to a boil when a Crosby officer was placed on paid administrative leave on Aug. 31 for an alleged misconduct. When the complaint became public, Coughlin declined to name the officer or details related to the alleged misconduct.

The union reported the department’s sergeant was removed from duty for the past two months and faces potential discipline along with two other officers. The officers named in the lawsuit regarding the investigations are Sgt. Jesse Smith and Officer John Abear and Officer Steven Ringhand.

The Teamsters Local 346 stated the alleged offense resulting in the investigations was answering questions about how the department’s duties are spread among patrolmen, the sergeant, and Police Captain Rick Koop.

“It’s a blatant effort by the chief to silence any discussion about the police department,” said Les Kundo, in a news release. Kundo is a business agent for Teamsters Local 346 who represents the Crosby police officers in negotiations. “These officers only answered the questions asked them by council members, but Chief Coughlin seems to want her officers to obey a code of silence.”

Neither Coughlin nor Koop are part of the union bargaining unit. The union reported the department typically has one sergeant and five to seven patrol officers.

A copy of the lawsuit, provided by the union’s attorney, asks for “injunctive relief from unfair labor practices threatened by and already committed by the city’s chief of police.”

The lawsuit states relief is also sought from the city as it is unclear whether the police chief or the city council has the authority to fire a police officer. Crosby Mayor Rick Ferrari declined to comment Wednesday.

The union reported its negotiating team, including the officers being investigated, sat down with a Crosby City Council committee on July 13 to begin new contract negotiations.

“Discussion of officer pay and potential layoffs dominated the meeting,” the union reported. “The council in the past has openly questioned whether the department needs three supervisors (chief, captain and sergeant), and raised the question again at the July 13 meeting.

“The captain position is not part of the officer group represented by the union, but the officers present spoke up to defend the current structure. However, the council representatives kept asking probing questions about duty assignments, focusing in on the captain’s share of police duties. One of the council members called many of the department’s officers to ask follow-up questions on the same topic after the meeting.”

In the lawsuit, Local 346 reported it sought an increase in pay during contract negotiations and the city countered with a zero increase the first year followed by a 1 percent increase the second. During negotiations, the union reported the city intimated unless the union agreed to the terms, an officer may be laid off. The union reported Crosby’s personnel committee members questioned whether the department needed three supervisors during the first negotiating session.

The union said Smith defended the current structure and was asked pointed questions and later he was “essentially ordered” to provide a written description of his duties to the committee, which he agreed to do.

The lawsuit alleges Smith and other department members were contacted after the meeting by a member of the personnel committee and asked questions about the supervisors’ duties, including the captain. The lawsuit states the officers didn’t feel they could refuse to answer council member’s questions and gave truthful answers.

About June 27, the lawsuit reports the council had a closed meeting to discuss negotiation progress and that someone told Coughlin the council was discussing terminating or demoting Koop. According to the lawsuit, the next day, Coughlin issued an order that officers would not discuss employee performance problems or issues with anyone but department supervisors.

“The chief then ordered internal investigations of three officers for potential discipline based upon the statements the officers made in the July 13 meeting, and removed Sgt. Jesse Smith from duty during the investigation,” the union reported. “In addition to blame for discussing the captain’s duties, Chief Coughlin accuses Smith of soliciting unethical gifts and special favors; the accusation is based entirely upon Smith’s presentation of the union’s wage proposal at the July 13 meeting. The other officers accused by Chief Coughlin have not been removed from police duties.”

The Mille Lacs Tribal Police Department was asked to conduct the internal affairs investigation for the Crosby Police Department.

“There’s no complex issue here,” said Joe Kelly, an attorney for the police union, in a news release. “The chief publicly accused her sergeant of officer misconduct and then shelved him for two months, just because he was the guy talking when the union presented its pay proposal. It’s not ‘misconduct’ to ask for a raise, especially in a meeting held just to discuss your contract.”

The complaint filed by the union alleges Coughlin committed seven types of unfair labor practices in violation of Minnesota law since Aug. 28. The lawsuit states Coughlin signed a notification letter stating Smith’s alleging his conversation with the council and Teamsters Union representative was done for personal financial gain, failed to use the proper chain of command and “fabricated, distorted or omitted factual and essential information to members of the Crosby Police Department and/or members of the Crosby City Council — all of which may have possibly-seriously-undermined the effectiveness of the entire police department.”

The union reported it is asking the court for “injunctions ordering Coughlin to stop the investigations and reinstate Smith, barring the chief and city council from taking disciplinary action against the officers involved in the negotiations, and blocking Chief Coughlin from taking any actions relating to the unfinished negotiations of the police labor contract.”

The union is requesting a preliminary injunction, which it expects the court to hear within the next week to 10 days. The Mille Lacs Tribal Police Department is conducting the internal affairs investigation for the Crosby Police Department, at Chief Coughlin’s request.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.