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New London - Hoping to end a stalemate and a settle some of a soaring number of police union grievances, the city and union have agreed to let an independent mediator handle future talks between the two sides.
City Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, along with both city and union attorneys, expressed optimism this week about being able to move forward in not only labor disputes but in other areas where the two sides have continually butted heads.
Finizio called the move to an independent mediator a small but significant turning point in relations with the union where frustration has become the norm in both talks over grievances and ongoing contract negotiations.
"Opinions and emotions have been strong on both sides of this," Finizio said. "The disputes in some cases stretch back several years and continued into this administration."
Evidence of friction came last month when Chief Margaret Ackley banned union attorney Eric Brown from all police buildings, alleging that he "went berserk" prior to a meeting to discuss discipline of a police officer who was eventually fired. The chief and the union, headed by Officer Todd Lynch, have had a contentious relationship for years. Lynch has a pending lawsuit against Ackley because of claims of retaliatory behavior. Ackley has a lawsuit against the city.
More than 40 grievances were filed in 2013 alone and city attorney Brian Estep and union attorney Brown said several more have carried over from 2012. The grievances range a complaint about one officer receiving a suspension for not trimming his beard to a lieutenant's wondering about the pay raises officers are supposed to get when they are promoted.
Finizio said he had suggested the independent mediator months ago.
"I do believe this is a step in the right direction," Finizio said. "Hopefully we can remove some of the personalities and politics from the situation to allow us to reach a resolution for the benefit of members of the police department, city administration and the city as a whole."
Brown said talks moderated by a mediator with the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration, different than the independent mediator now being proposed, have been at a standstill for months.
"Morale is terrible and there is a great deal of mistrust on both sides," Brown said. "There are a number of grievances not getting resolved. A neutral third party, with a neutral eye on this stuff, could help us resolve some (grievances). I'm hopeful because the city is on board. My people are on board. For the first time in a year I feel like we're headed in a bit of a positive direction."
Former Superior Court Judge Robert Holzberg is the mediator agreed to by both sides, Brown said. Holzberg leads the Alternative Dispute Resolution practice at Hartford-based Pullman & Comley.
Estep, involved in many aspects of the legal wrangling between the union and the city, agreed it was a step forward. He said that since the recommendation of the mediator is not binding, a better working relationship between both sides will go a long way to resolving some of the issues.
Finizio said the recent dialogue was a sign that "all sides want to move forward."
"Hopefullly we can … dial down the rhetoric and politics and come to the table with good faith," Finizio said. "We all need to do what's right for the city of New London.
He said his administration looks forward to meeting with union officials, Lynch included, to "resolve the ongoing contract negotiations and begin to move the department forward so we can restaff the department, get them the equipment and vehicles they deserve and start a new chapter in the history of the New London Police Department."
Contract negotiations are expected to continue on Jan. 23 and a meeting with the new mediator for grievances is expected to be scheduled for February.