Portland City Council revises civil service rules, but not without dispute

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PORTLAND — The first part of revising rules for hiring, training and promoting police and firefighters proved easy at the City Council meeting Monday night.

Changing rules pertaining to the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee was more contentious; councilors and Mayor Ethan Strimling argued for an hour over how to proceed during a 3 1/2-hour meeting in City Hall.

By a unanimous vote, the council approved the overhaul of text governing qualifications, disqualifications, training and promotion for police and firefighters. Before the vote, Fire Chief David Jackson said the changes were needed because the prior text was antiquated.

Strimling successfully sought to split the agenda question to separate text on civilian civil service requirements that pertain especially to serving on the committee that reviews citizen complaints about police.

He hoped to postpone the vote until Feb. 21, and to add the rule changes to the agenda for a workshop preceding a council meeting that night.

Councilors rejected the call for the workshop agenda addition, preferring to keep the discussion limited to the developing policy on police use of body cameras.

The new civil service requirements were then passed, although with the willingness for future discussions on amending them more.

Included in the changes are ending the ban on anyone serving who had worked for the city, had been arrested (or had family members arrested), or had filed complaints against police.

The bans now last 10 years, but even that time frame was too long for speakers including the Rev. Kenneth Lewis and state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, who also leads the city chapter of the NAACP.

“We need to move to full participation and opportunity for engagement,” said Lewis, who is pastor of the Green Memorial AME Zion Church. He also objected because the restriction covers people who were arrested, as opposed to having cases adjudicated.

Talbot Ross said restricting former city employees even for a decade could mean valuable insight is lost.

“My fear is we are treating city employment as though every employee who leaves is disgruntled,” she said.

Talbot Ross also complained the city has lacked transparency by not posting the subcommittee proceedings and materials on the city website.

Strimling added he was seeking the postponement because he had not gotten all the information he wanted in order to suggest potential amendments.

Councilors were less inclined to amend the proposed rules before passing them, especially as doing so could force the city to reopen freshly signed contracts with two police unions.

City Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said the need to reopen the contract could be “a very broad issue,” while Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the department has already found a compromise by supporting a 10-year ban on service instead of a permanent one.

Councilors including Jill Duson said a workshop discussion might actually require an executive session because of the labor issues involved, while Strimling said it was his impression items like a 10-year ban would not need collective bargaining.

Following the vote approving the new rules, City Manager Jon Jennings said he would meet with Sauschuck before there are any more council discussions.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Feb. 5 that changes to civil service standards beyond those passed by councilors could mean union contracts would need to be reopened.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.