In early February, Celine Mutuyemariya decided she’d waited long enough.
She’d been calling and emailing Mayor Greg Fischer’s office for months about the 490 Project’s push to get community observers in the room while the city and union negotiated the new five-year police contract. She never heard back. So when she saw Fischer in the front row of a community forum she was attending, she took her opportunity.
“We have a petition with over 1,300 people who want to have access to the police negotiations,” she said into the microphone. “All we want to do is to witness how these negotiations function because you said that contract prevented you from getting justice for Breonna Taylor.”
Mutuyemariya spoke directly to Fischer, saying he could just decide to allow community observers in the room if he wanted to.
“Well, not really,” Fischer said. “Because there’s an agreement between what the FOP will allow and what the city will allow.”
The ground rules do say that all negotiation sessions shall be closed to the press and public and that neither party will talk to the media about the negotiations until they’re over.
But those ground rules were signed on the first day of negotiations: January 21, 2021, just two weeks before this confrontation and months into widespread calls for greater transparency from city government and the Louisville Metro Police Department.
Organizers with the 490 Project, a Louisville activist group, provided documentation of emails and phone calls to the mayor’s office asking for community representation as early as October. They say they are incredibly disappointed that the city agreed to these terms months after hearing, and ignoring, that call.
“The city agreed to these ground rules that basically encourage opacity, even as they’re saying, again, publicly that they want transparency,” said Rachel Hardy, an organizer with the 490 Project. “Obviously, in our opinion, both of those things can’t be true.”
River City Fraternal Order of Police press secretary Dave Mutchler declined to comment, citing the ground rules that prevent discussing negotiations with the media. City spokesperson Jean Porter said in a statement that the city had some concerns about how these proposals might extend the process or impact the city’s other collective bargaining agreements.
“It’s our hope that we can have informed conversations about how we can achieve more transparency, within the confines of existing laws, while adhering to our No. 1 goal, which is to reach an agreement between [Louisville Metro Government] and the FOP that meets the needs of both the police and the community they serve,” she wrote.City officials met with the 490 Project twice after that confrontation at the forum; KyCIR has reviewed audio recordings of those meetings. In the first meeting on March 9th, representatives from the mayor’s office said they would look into the legality of adding community observers and whether they could renegotiate the ground rules.
Metro Government General Counsel Annale Taylor emailed the group a few days later and said that the negotiation team had “broached the general topic of opening up the negotiations with the FOP negotiation team.”
“We are still researching and reviewing similar models used in other cities so that we can develop a specific and detailed proposal to present to the FOP,” she wrote.
In the second meeting on March 19, Deputy Mayor Ellen Hesen told the 490 Project that negotiations would continue without community observers for now.
“The next time [the FOP and the city] get together next month is going to be way too soon to have this resolved,” she said. “It’s kind of like turning around a cruise ship in a pond. It’s gonna take a little bit. It’s not like flipping a switch.”
Contract Negotiations Ongoing
National protests this summer have dragged police union contracts into the spotlight. In Louisville, Fischer has pointed to the union contract’s due process provisions as one reason he could not discipline or fire the officers involved in the Taylor shooting as swiftly as protesters wanted.
The 490 Project and other community organizers argue that bringing the public into the negotiations, even as a silent observer, would help rebuild trust and hold both the union and elected leaders accountable.
“For so many years, the police union has basically been able to operate with pretty much complete impunity and essentially just have undue influence,” said Hardy. “A lot of it is because people don’t understand the process and there’s no sunlight on the negotiations. There is no oversight.”
The last collective bargaining agreement with the FOP expired in June 2018, and was extended repeatedly as the two sides negotiated. This fall, after months of protests over LMPD officers killing Breonna Taylor, the city and the FOP agreed to a short-term contract to run through June 30th.
Metro Council approved the contract by a 16-10 vote as protesters stood outside the building, demanding they vote it down. Some Council members have said they will not approve a future contract that doesn’t include significant changes to provisions that limit officer discipline and accountability.
The short-term contract contained pay raises and new health care benefits, as well as some of the reforms included in the settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family. The city would negotiate other aspects of that settlement in this upcoming contract, a spokesperson for the Mayor told WFPL News at the time.
Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, studies the history and influence of police unions. She says the secrecy around these negotiations has contributed to the growing power of police unions, often without much notice from the community.
“Without a public window into these negotiations, this is a part of how we ended up in this space,” she said. “If the aim of local government is to improve relationships with communities, they should be open to figuring out new and different ways to ensure those communities feel heard.”
The 490 Project has offered two proposals to add community oversight to Louisville’s negotiations with the FOP. The first would require changing the ground rules, to add three community members as silent observers to the process, who could then report back to the wider community about the ongoing discussions.
City officials said one major concern with this idea is quickly deciding who the community representatives would be, since many groups are pushing to be at the table.
The second proposal would not require changing the ground rules: they’ve asked the city to put community members on the negotiating team directly.
Hardaway said that’s a “creative” idea.
“What a message that would be sent by those in Louisville that have indicated that they are interested in reform, interested in repairing the relationships with communities that have been negatively impacted by police violence, to say we want everyone at the table,” she said.
In the meeting, Hesen rejected this idea.
“That sounds like a nice theory,” she said. “But you know, when we’re looking at multi-year contracts, and multiple millions of dollars, we certainly need people from Metro HR, Metro Finance and from the agencies…at the table. So I don’t think we can substitute” community members, she said.
Nothing in the ground rules specifies the number of people on the negotiating team. On the call, Hesen said the team ranged from three to 15 people depending on what specific provisions were being negotiated.
Public sector union contracts are governed by city ordinance and state law. In one of the calls with the 490 Project, a city lawyer raised a legal concern around the state’s Open Meetings Act, which exempts collective bargaining negotiations between public employers and their employees or their representative.
The 490 Project argues that allows them to close the meeting, but does not forbid opening it to the public.
Urgent Action Needed, Activists Say
Chief of Community Building Vincent James told the group he would respond to their proposals by March 30th.
But the organizers behind the 490 Project say that, after waiting months to hear from the city, anything other than urgent action is insufficient.
“If they’re not willing to do something essentially in the next month, if they’re not ready to make dramatic change now, they are kicking the can down the road five, six, seven, even maybe eight years, depending on how long this next contract gets extended,” said Hardy. “That’s pushing it off on to the next generation of politicians and potentially, organizers.”
Metro Council President David James, a former FOP president and current mayoral candidate, expressed concerns about the legality of adding community observers. But he said he would encourage Fischer to find other ways to solicit community feedback prior to the contract being finalized.
He also took issue with Fischer’s claim at that meeting in February that the community has oversight of the process through the Metro Council, which isn’t involved.
“The Mayor does negotiations for the contract. The Metro Council does not negotiate with the FOP, or the mayor, about the contract. It’s a done deal by the time it gets to the council,” he said.
The FOP has tried to cut Metro Council out of the process altogether. In November, the FOP filed a lawsuit arguing that contracts do not need Metro Council approval to become valid. County Attorney Michael O’Connell’s office issued a finding disagreeing with that assertion. That lawsuit is still pending.
Other Cities Added Community Voices
If Louisville added community observers, it would not be the first city to do so.
In 2017, the Austin Justice Coalition pushed the city council to vote down a contract that they didn’t agree with, and bring community members to the table for the next round of negotiations. The contract the city eventually signed included raises for officers and increased accountability measures. One city council member called it “the most forward-thinking contract in the nation.”
The City of Portland and its police union agreed to ground rules that allow silent observers at alternating negotiation sessions. The city and the union issue joint press releases after each session to keep the public informed.
This summer, Philadelphia passed an ordinance requiring public hearings ahead of police union negotiations. The union sued the city, claiming the ordinance violated their collective bargaining rights and state law.
Hardaway, the law professor, said no union contract will ever please everyone. But when city officials work to make the process as understandable and open as possible, it goes a long way.
“We certainly can get to a place where we feel that we have been heard and the government is doing what is best under the circumstances,” she said. “I think there is value in a willingness to say, ‘Without public understanding and education and an opportunity for meaningful input into these processes, I’m not doing my job as an elected and appointed official.’”
Correction: The FOP and city agree neither party will talk to the media about contract negotiations until they’re over. The agreement was misstated in a previous version.