By JC Reindl
Publication: The Day
Published 07/13/2012 12:00 AM
Hartford – In September 2010, gubernatorial candidate Dannel P. Malloy stopped by the headquarters of the Connecticut State Police Union to seek an endorsement.
He committed to increasing the state trooper ranks to 1,248 – then the statutory minimum. He assured the union “a seat at the table” in future talks concerning state police, according to the union’s president, Sgt. Andrew Matthews.
The union liked what it heard. The candidate won its endorsement. And soon there were off-duty troopers at campaign rallies with bullhorns and Malloy-Wyman placards.
But two years on, relations between Malloy’s administration and the state police union are at an all-time low.
Last month, the union of troopers, sergeants and master sergeants overwhelmingly voted no confidence in two top state police brass: Commissioner Reuben Bradford – a Malloy appointee – and Deputy Commissioner Col. Danny Stebbins. It was the first no-confidence vote since the union was formed in 1981.
Union leaders say they’re mad at the governor for backpedaling on his trooper staffing pledge and allowing various top-down changes at the state police that, they contend, are misguided, unfair and detrimental to public safety.
Complicating the situation are personality conflicts, a newly expired labor contract, and claims of a secret deal that fell apart.
There is also lingering resentment that Malloy initially laid off 56 rookie troopers last summer after the union became one of only two state employees’ unions to vote down the wages portion of a workforce concessions agreement needed to balance the state budget. That part of the agreement called for a two-year wage freeze in exchange for four years of job security.
Troopers rallied at the state Capitol that August in protest of the layoffs. Their placards noted their “24/7” duty in a dangerous line of work.
The laid-off troopers were eventually rehired, and the entire force got to keep the 2.5 percent raises in its contract. But anger persists.
‘Change is hard’
The governor has characterized the friction as simple resistance to change. The initiatives under way, including a dispatch consolidation project and new “data-driven” policing, were designed to save money and put more troopers back on patrol.
“Change is hard,” Malloy said recently. “It’s also necessary.”
A timing factor is the June 30 expiration of the state police union’s work contract. Matthews, the union president, insists it was largely coincidental that their no-confidence vote occurred the same week the contract expired. Talks for a new contract are ongoing, and the union is bracing for arbitration.
Still a sore subject for the union is elimination of the state’s trooper staffing minimum law.
After taking office, Malloy called 1,248 troopers an “arbitrary” number lacking any direct link to public safety.
Malloy was the driving force behind legislation that passed the General Assembly last month and officially ended the minimum, which in practice was often ignored by past administrations. The new law tasks Commissioner Bradford with determining a “sufficient” number of troopers for Connecticut; a legislative committee has also formed to study the issue.
By the union’s count, there are now 1,068 uniformed troopers.
Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser, said the governor learned that the 1,248 figure, set in law in 1998, originated from an application for a federal grant.
“We during the campaign were under the assumption that there was a specific law enforcement rationale for that number,” Occhiogrosso said. “We came to find out that was not the case.” Now the law reads differently.
The new consolidation project calls for regionalizing dispatch operations and reducing the number of dispatch centers from 12 to five. The goal is to put the equivalent of 55 troopers back on patrol by handing dispatch duties to lower-paid civilians.
The first consolidation occurred this spring in the state’s northwest corner. Stebbins, the project’s architect, wants the consolidation involving Troop E in Montville – dispatch operations for Troops C, D, E and K all to be out of Troop C in Tolland – within a year. Troop C has the barracks with the newest building and the most amount of free space.
State police have also begun using a “data-driven” model to schedule policing for events like OpSail/Sailfest and the University of Connecticut’s spring weekend. The model considers data such as box office receipts and hotel room sales to gauge the appropriate number of troopers.
Other changes include using judicial marshals to transfer some prisoners and redeploying several troopers once stationed at Bradley International Airport.
“Yes, there is change,” Stebbins said. “But it is for the good.”
Stebbins and Bradford are both former Connecticut troopers who came out of retirement.
“If you had a couple of civilians who had never worn a uniform, then I think it would be a fair question to ask as to how public safety is being enhanced,” Occhiogrosso said.
The union contends the consolidation is already overburdening dispatchers and resulting in longer waits for 911 and trooper radio calls. They also question the savings and whether barracks might eventually close on nights and weekends.
Stebbins said the consolidation will save money long-term. He denies any closure plans. Other high-level state officials point out that the changes drawing complaints from the union would reduce the amount of available overtime.
Overtime pay allows many state troopers to significantly increase their salaries and pensions.
Matthews, who is also an attorney, argues that the union wasn’t given its “seat at the table” beforehand.
But Stebbins counters that union members in the first three barracks affected were indeed part of those discussions. “I guess Andy means why was he not invited,” the colonel said.
Occhiogrosso also contends that the Malloy administration at first gave the union unprecedented access, including 2011 talks that led to a compromise on how troopers staff the state’s half-dozen truck weigh stations.
“Until they blew it, they had a seat at the table they never had before,” Occhiogrosso said, who said the union president “destroyed” his relationship with the administration. “He was misrepresenting conversations we were having, and then he was agreeing to things and then un-agreeing to them.”
He cites an episode last year during grievance proceedings in which Linda Yelmini, state director labor relations, believed that Matthews misrepresented evidence to “inappropriately gain an advantage” in a dispute. Matthews hotly contests Yelmini’s recollection.
Matthews said he and his members are being “bullied” and “punished” by the Malloy administration for voting down part of the state workforce concessions agreement last August.
Matthews said another reason for the strain is the administration’s decision last summer to withdraw its offer for a state police-only side deal as part of the larger concessions agreement.
Most administration officials deny such a deal existed.
Occhiogrosso said Matthews sought some sort of special arrangement for the union during a visit to his office in the state Capitol. Occhiogrosso recalled telling the union president he wasn’t involved in concessions negotiations and referred him to Mark Ojakian, the administration’s head negotiator and now Malloy’s chief of staff.
“He would slip into this office in a dark overcoat like it was some sort of spy novel, and he wanted to talk about SEBAC,” Occhiogrosso said, using the acronym for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition that bargained on behalf of 15 state unions.
Ojakian said, “We never discussed or made a side deal with anybody.”
Yet Matthews claims that a high-level official in the administration did indeed offer a special six-month time extension before the concessions would kick in. That would allow time to put a new class of troopers through training, in case the concessions prompted mass retirements.
Of 168 troopers eligible to retire, 40 ended up taking the offer. The union feared that many more would retire to lock in their benefits, Matthews said. Troopers who stayed on will receive lower cost-of-living adjustments in their pensions.
The other unions in the coalition were not supposed to know about the special deal, he said. Matthews said there was no written contract, only oral agreements and voicemail.
In a statement and through a spokesman, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman confirmed to The Day that she did extend a potential offer to state police for six months of “flexibility,” but it was not a firm offer, which can only be made at the bargaining table.
The administration pulled out of the deal arrangement in the first part of August, Matthews said, when other state union leaders caught word of it and tried to seek something similar. Rank-and-file members of the union coalition were soon to begin a do-over round of voting on the concessions package.
Matthews recalled walking into Occhiogrosso’s office after Malloy’s press secretary issued a statement batting down “the rumor” of a special deal for state police.
“I said, ‘You can’t tell people there wasn’t a deal when there was. The only thing troopers have is their integrity,'” Matthews said. “And he said that my conversation with this individual was supposed to be confidential, and I had breached that confidentiality and I cannot be trusted.”
Matthews said he had to tell union members about the arrangement to give them another reason to vote in favor of the concessions – which they had rejected in the first vote two months earlier.
“I don’t work for Roy Occhiogrosso, I don’t work for the governor, I work for the members who elected me,” said Matthews, who is halfway through his four-year term as president.
The workforce concessions passed anyway that August, despite troopers’ no votes.