Police officers walked out of Thursday night’s Idaho Falls City Council meeting after the fourth “no” vote came, declaring the Idaho Falls Fraternal Order of Police could not represent Idaho Falls Police Department officers in collective bargaining.
“We’re disappointed in the outcome, and we’re going to continue fighting for this,” said Officer Kyle Christopherson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.
The 4-2 vote ends six months of debate on whether to allow city police to have collective bargaining rights similar to the Idaho Falls Fire Department and some Idaho Falls Power employees. The FOP began requesting the formation of a union after department morale had declined under former Chief Mark McBride.
Council Members John Radford and Michelle Ziel-Dingman were the only council members to vote in favor of the union. Council member Barbara Dee Ehardt, the last member to vote, hesitated before saying no.
Ehardt said she felt the vote should not have been delayed, and that the current city council should not vote on an item the next council will have to implement. Three new members of the council will take office next year.
Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper said she delayed the vote to the last council meeting of the year because she didn’t want mayoral election politics to influence the decision. Casper said the current council should decide the issue because they did the research on the effect a police union would have on a city.
If the vote had been a tie, Casper said she would have voted against forming a union. She said she would be open to revisiting collective bargaining in the future.
“I would like to see us give this chief time to implement the policy changes he’s implementing now. I would like to give him time to see that through and see what difference giving him six to 12 months on the job would have on rectifying some of the problems,” Casper said.
Council Member Ed Marohn also cited new Chief Bryce Johnson as a reason to vote against unionization. Marohn said morale has improved in the department since Johnson took over, and his policy changes need time to take effect.
Casper also said the council would continue to talk with police despite the vote.
“This vote doesn’t preclude the need to have conversation that goes on on a regular basis between council members and police officers,” Casper said.
Even before the vote, police officers began walking out when Marohn cited police benefits as a reason a union wasn’t necessary.
“What does a union really provide that’s better than what we provide as a city?” Marohn said.
Council member Thomas Hally, the liaison between the city council and human resources, said when he was still new to the council in 2004, the department was in need of a new law enforcement building, and that the building should take priority over collective bargaining.
Ziel-Dingman, who was present via speaker phone, said she had also heard good things about Johnson, but that chief turnover in Idaho Falls has been higher than for officers, and that a new chief could undo his progress on morale.
“I don’t see how I can look those officers in the eye and say, ‘the other first responders deserve representation, but you don’t,’” Ziel Dingman said.
Radford agreed the difference in treatment was a problem even if officers receive good benefits in Idaho Falls.
“It’s also about the sense right now that police are under attack,” Radford said.
Council Member David Smith said he agreed with Ziel-Dingman, but voted no.
Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.