Oak Bluffs Police Receive Overtime Pay

By CHRIS BURRELL

Oak Bluffs police officers are about to receive the kind of windfall most employees only dream of - getting paid for hours never worked.

Acting decisively on a grievance filed by the police union back in September 2001, an arbitrator last month ruled that former police chief Joseph Carter wrongly bypassed regular police officers when it came to filling overtime shifts.

"The employer violated the collective bargaining agreement in its assignment of special police officers rather than regular police officers to fill vacant shifts," states the arbitrator's report obtained by the Gazette this week.

A clear win for the police union, the decision not only sharply criticizes the actions of Mr. Carter but also sets the stage for a monetary settlement that could force the town to hand over as much as $100,000 to nine officers.

"It's a very unfortunate thing to be in a position of having to pay people who didn't work," said town administrator Casey Sharpe. "It puts us in a very untenable position."

The union is now working out the terms of a settlement with police and town leaders, which is expected in two weeks. Selectmen could also decide to appeal the arbitrator's ruling.

The police union filed the grievance a year and a half ago, complaining that then Chief Carter was breaching the terms of their contract, routinely offering overtime or open shifts to less experienced and lower-paid special police officers.

Those shifts were supposed to be offered on a first-refusal basis to the regular officers, but the former chief opted to hire the special officers to save money, the report stated.

Now, less than two months after Mr. Carter resigned his post to take over as chief of the transit police in Boston, it's obvious that his money-saving move backfired, leaving Oak Bluffs officials to dip back into town coffers in the midst of dismal budget shortfalls.

"That's a lot of money for us right now when things are awful tight," said John Lolley, chairman of the Oak Bluffs finance committee.

Police union president James Morse said union members are pleased with the "very favorable" decision rendered by arbitrator Lawrence E. Katz of Newton.

But Officer Morse would not comment on whether the union grievance was spurred by the fact that in the summer of 2001 former Chief Carter had just collected his own overtime paycheck for $67,882, an amount almost equal to his annual salary of $70,000.

The former chief's overtime pay, when made public in August 2001, touched off a controversy and awakened the scrutiny of the finance committee which began questioning whether Mr. Carter's contract entitled him to the hefty paycheck or simply to accrue hours and take time off later.

While the 43-page decision from Mr. Katz makes no reference to Mr. Carter's sizable overtime pay which totaled just under $100,000 over three years, it reveals that the former chief was very concerned about rationing the police department's overtime budget when it came to assigning shifts to officers.

"The chief decided to give first preference for shift vacancies to special officers, rather than regular officers, as a means of conserving the limited funds available in the additional salary account," the report stated. "The chief acknowledged that if there were no financial constraints, it would be advantageous from a public safety viewpoint to assign these shift vacancies to a more highly trained regular officer than to a less highly trained special officer."

Special officers, according to the report, go through a total of 120 hours of police training, not the full police academy training that regular officers must complete.

The arbitrator's report also reveals that the issue of assigning vacant shifts was an ongoing source of friction between the police officers and former Chief Carter. Back in 1998, former officer and union president Alan Kallman filed a similar grievance, complaining that the former chief was failing to follow the terms of the contract.

But when Mr. Carter told Officer Kallman that the line item for additional salaries would be exhausted if he abided by the terms in the contract, the grievance was settled with both parties agreeing to continue with the past practice.

It wasn't until nearly three years later - after news of Mr. Carter's own overtime settlement made front page news - that the police union raised the issue again with a formal grievance.

According to the report, the renewed grievance raised tensions within the police department. Regular Officer Damien Harris filed one of the grievances, saying he had been "improperly bypassed" for an available shift that went to a special officer.

Mr. Carter denied the grievance, expressing concern about a "potential shortage of overtime funds." The former chief told Mr. Katz he was "dismayed" by the complaints.

In the wake of the new grievances, the report stated, Officer Morse was concerned about threats that officers would receive no overtime shift until the dispute was resolved.

"Morse then noted that for December 2001, special officers had been assigned to 35 of 39 listed shift vacancies," the report stated.

Mr. Katz wrote in his concluding remarks: "The evidence indicated that the ongoing bypass of the regular officers was also based on a desire to retaliate against them and/or the union, due to their failure to accept the proposed settlement."

The arbitrator also voiced concern for the consequences of such actions, arguing that following the letter of the contract would have "enhanced public safety."

Finally, Mr. Katz made it clear that police officers denied the opportunity to work extra shifts now deserved to be paid.

"Regular officers adversely affected by the ongoing violation of the provision in and after September 2001," Mr. Katz wrote, "should be made whole for any overtime pay that they lost."