Saturday, July 11, 2009

Kelly column breaks impasse in Reading K-9/FOP flap

Just hours after my column hit the streets in the Reading Eagle I received a call from Reading police Chief Bill Heim reporting that the impasse in the K-9/FOP flap had been reached.
I'm convinced Heim and Mayor Tom McMahon decided to swallow their pride and do the right thing because it was obvious the police union wasn't going to live by their word.
Reading Eagle Reporter Don Spatz wrote the following story because I was on vacation.

Reading police to keep K-9 unit; dog handlers reassigned
By Don Spatz
Reading Eagle

Reading police Chief William M. Heim on Thursday broke a two-month impasse over the future of the city's K-9 squad, offering K-9 jobs to four patrolmen in accordance with an arbitrator's ruling.

However, the complex decision means current K-9 Officer Joshua Faust could lose his job as a handler and his dog, Rocky.

The chief and the officers union, the Fraternal Order of Police, have been fighting over what qualifications the six dog handlers need. Three are trained, and three teams have been on the job since last fall.

The FOP had insisted seniority alone be used to choose handlers. Heim wanted additional qualifications to apply.

The three current K-9 officers have remained on duty despite the battle. Heim's decision means they lose their jobs as dog handlers.

However, two of them - Officers Andrew Winters and Jason Linderman - get the jobs back based on seniority.

But Faust, the third K-9 officer, loses the job unless one of the new appointees fails to make the grade.

Heim would not comment on what happens to Faust's dog. He said that will be handled later.

In addition to Winters and Linderman, Heim offered K-9 posts to Officers Brian Rogers, Eric Goudy, Ron Miko and Hector Santiago. The four new officers will have to be trained.

Ironically, Santiago, Linderman and Faust were hired the same day and have the same seniority.

In such cases, the contract says older officers are more senior. Among the three, Faust is the youngest.

In making the offers, Heim passed over another applicant with more seniority, as Heim said the contract allows him to do. He declined to name that officer or say why he was passed over.

The FOP did not return calls seeking comment.

Heim and the FOP have been battling over what qualifications K-9 officers should have.

An arbitrator ruled that unless they agree otherwise, the written contract applies. It specifies seniority, plus brief psychological and physical agility tests, as the only qualifications.

Failing to reach agreement with the FOP, Heim decided in May to disband the unit rather than giving in to seniority alone.

That sparked the beginning of a court battle with the Berks County Community Foundation, which wants back the $361,000 in grant money it provided for training and vehicles.

Foundation President Kevin K. Murphy said he was pleased with Thursday's decision.

"Once we get formal notice, we'll ask the court to withdraw the petition," he said.

Heim said the written contract uses the wording "qualified applicants," allowing him to keep the minimum qualifications for future hires.

Among them, he said, are that applicants must have three years on the job, agree to stay in the unit for four years, have a spouse (and a landlord, if renting) that agrees to the dog and have a suitable place to exercise the dog.

Will Reading K-9 dispute make a prophet of former District Attorney Mark Baldwin?

You may not know this, but the impasse between Reading police Chief William M. Heim and the Reading Fraternal Order of Police over staffing for the new K-9 unit is all my fault.

I've been accused in the past of having an exaggerated sense of self-importance, but I think I'm right this time.

This whole mess actually started five years ago this month.

Reading police seized $1.1 million from a drug dealer in the city in July 2004. A judge signed an order forfeiting the money in April 2005, but former District Attorney Mark C. Baldwin did nothing.

When Mayor Tom McMahon and Chief Heim went to Baldwin's office to demand the $1.1 million, you could almost hear the gears turning in Baldwin's Machiavellian mind.

After promising to give the $1.1 million to the city police in $200,000 installments, Baldwin pulled the rug out from under everyone, including me.

In June 2008, he gave it to the Berks County Community Foundation to create the District Attorney's Anti-drug Fund.

It all happened about five months prior to the election in which Baldwin was running for re-election.

I went on the attack.

I wrote that Baldwin and the city police had a long-standing written agreement to split forfeited funds 80-20 in favor of the city. The county prosecutor must file the court papers to legally seize the cash or assets, but that doesn't make it his money, I averred.

When Baldwin gave the money to the foundation, he said he did so in part because he knew that if he gave that much money to the city they'd find a way to screw it up.

The city cried foul.

Mayor Tom McMahon filed a lawsuit against Baldwin alleging that he violated the 1993 agreement on the split.

Truth be told, an 80-20 split might have worked for a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars in seized drug money, but once you get into seven figures even level-headed people start to lose their minds.

The lawsuit was settled when the foundation agreed to give $461,000 of the $1.1 million to the city in the form of a K-9 unit run by the city but available countywide.

Baldwin lost his bid for re-election, but his prediction appears to be coming true.

That's why even though everyone agrees we need that K-9 unit, it will probably be disbanded.

And it's all my fault.