OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The city of Oakland refuses to disclose records that could show if it’s been holding secret meetings with a police union on policy issues that are supposed to debated in public, a police accountability group claims in a new lawsuit.
The Coalition for Police Accountability and its coordinator Rashidah Grinage sued the city in Alameda County Superior Court on Thursday for failing to release records on meet-and-confer sessions with Oakland’s police union last year. The meetings were being held as the city was crafting a 2020 ballot measure aimed at strengthening the powers of Oakland’s police commission, a seven-member civilian oversight board.
“It is our contention that civilian oversight is public policy and it’s not a subject of mandatory bargaining,” Grinage, said.
Responding to that claim, a lawyer for the Oakland Police Officers Association denied that his client has been using confidential labor negotiations to obstruct police reform. Last year, the president of the police union endorsed a voter-approved measure that strengthened the police commission’s powers.
“It’s nonsense to suggest that we use the meet-and-confer process to impede police reform,” said attorney Rocky Lucia, of Rains Lucia Stern. “The record does not support it.”
The lawsuit comes less than a week after a judge found Oakland out of compliance with California’s police transparency law for failing to turn over police files requested by journalists more than two years ago.
The coalition claims in its lawsuit the city has a “pattern and practice” of not responding fully or appropriately to requests for documents as required by the California Public Records Act.
The coalition submitted its request on Jan. 14, seeking all records related to meet-and-confer sessions between the city and police union from May 1 to Dec. 31, 2020.
The city responded on March 8, nearly a month after an already extended Feb. 11 deadline, stating that it was not required to release those records because they are covered by exemptions for deliberative processes and collective bargaining.
Grinage said she found that response puzzling because the city released records for an eerily similar request in 2017 regarding meet-and-confer sessions with the union. At that time, the city turned over emails between its human resources department and police union lawyers. The city also provided dates when meetings occurred and names of attendees, she said.
“What I was asking for this time was the same information,” Grinage said. “This time they refused to provide it.”
Grinage’s attorney, Jennifer Mathis, said the city merely cited the language of a statute in its response and did not adequately explain why it was withholding the requested files.
“We think the city could release some documents,” Mathis said. “If they thought portions of documents shouldn’t be disclosed, they could produce them in a redacted form rather than withhold them in their entirety.”
Grinage said she wants the city to justify its decision to hold meet-and-confer sessions with the union on what she suspects are policy issues that are not subject to mandatory negotiations under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement between the union and city.
The requested records could show the city has been violating the terms of a settlement reached in 2001 to resolve a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the coalition’s predecessor, People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO), Grinage said. That settlement requires disputes over what triggers mandatory meet-and-confers be resolved through a public arbitration proceeding.
The police reform advocate added that records obtained in 2017 suggest the city initiated meet-and-confer sessions with the union on proposed legislation that her group believes was not subject to collective bargaining requirements.
The coalition argues that policy discussions on police oversight should be held in public, not in secret meetings with the union.
“If police unions have a position on proposed legislation, they are free to bring that forward in open session but it doesn’t give them a right to exercise a kind of veto power in closed session,” Grinage said.
Lucia, the union’s lawyer, dismissed allegations of improper meet-and-confer sessions as “nonsense.” He said the union has an obligation to protect officers’ due process and collective bargaining rights, but the idea that it uses closed sessions to thwart police reform and accountability are not supported by the facts, he said.
“Oakland got what they wanted,” Lucia said of a successful 2020 ballot measure that expanded the police commission’s powers. “They got reform. They strengthened their police commission. The process worked the way it was supposed to.”
Oakland’s police commission was formed in 2016 through a voter-backed ballot measure. Last year, 81% of Oakland voters approved Measure S1, which expanded the commission’s powers by allowing it to hire and fire an inspector general and the head of review agency that investigates police misconduct, among other changes.
The coalition’s lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Oakland to release all “disclosable documents” on its meet-and-confer sessions with the police union last year.
Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker’s office did not return a phone message requesting comment Friday.