SLO police union's decision to change representation prompts concerns

As labor negotiations with the city approach in September, the San Luis Obispo Police Officers Association voted to replace its negotiator of 12 years with a law firm that represents public safety unions across the state.

But some critics have questioned the decision, linking the law firm to another firm that disbanded after allegations of misconduct.

In April, the SLOPOA voted to replace Dale Strobridge, who has acted as the union’s negotiator since 2003, with Adams, Ferrone & Ferrone of Westlake Village, POA President Aaron Schafer said Thursday.

The law firm also represents the San Luis Obispo Firefighters Association and the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association. The firm gathered information for the Arroyo Grande union during its conflict with the city a year ago over its then-city manager.

The San Luis Obispo police union represents about 60 public safety employees and support staff. Its contract with the city is set to expire at the end of this year.

The labor negotiations due to start in September will be important to members of the POA.

In 2012, all city employee pay was cut by 6.8 percent when they agreed to pay their full 8 percent member contribution to CalPERS and shared cost increases in their health insurance premiums.

Schafer said union leadership asked three different law firms as well as Strobridge to meet with membership and then held a vote choosing Adams, Ferrone & Ferrone.

“It’s important to re-evaluate, every so often, what we want, where we stand and what we want to accomplish,” Schafer said. “I respect Dale. If he had won, I would not have not had a problem at all.”

He added that the firm will be retained for more than contract negotiations; it will  also represent the union in workers’ compensation cases and other labor-related litigation.

“The overwhelming majority of (members) saw that as a perk,” Schafer said, adding that it was advantageous to retain a firm that represents some 100 public safety employee unions.

He declined to state how much the POA is paying for the firm’s services.

Stuart Adams, partner with the firm, said in an email that he has enjoyed a good relationship with the city, despite occasional disputes.

Adams said he acted as POA negotiator for a couple of years when Strobridge was union president.

“Our styles, however, are different, and the current POA is looking to take a new direction with us,” Adams wrote.

Adams said his firm, “has built its reputation on building relationships with the agencies whose associations we represent. I think that if you ask those in charge at the city administration and the City Attorney’s Office in San Luis Obispo, they would tell you this is true.”

San Luis Obispo’s director of human resources, Monica Irons, agreed via email Thursday.

“The city has interacted with (partner) Stuart Adams through his historical representation of police and fire for numerous years and found him to be a strong employee advocate, grounded in a broad perspective from representing other public safety agencies throughout the State of California, who is willing to work to resolve issues,” Irons wrote.

In an e-newsletter Wednesday, the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce broke the news of the firm’s hiring to its members, alleging that Strobridge’s ouster was “one positive sign” for upcoming negotiations.

“Strobridge has earned a reputation of being highly contentious in his negotiation style,” the anonymously written letter reads.

Strobridge still acts as negotiator for the San Luis Obispo City Employees Association, which represents 151 nonpublic safety personnel at the city.

That union finalized its labor agreement with the city earlier this week.

Strobridge said he was taken aback by the chamber’s claim.

“I think it’s a reckless and irresponsible statement and it’s simply untrue,” Strobridge said.

That said, Strobridge noted the department’s rank and file has gone through a lot of turnover since he began serving the union. 

“Things change, and sometimes change is good for recharging the batteries,” Strobridge said. “I’m comfortable with the decision and wish them well.”

But some community members are concerned about Michael McGill, an attorney with Adams, Ferrone & Ferrone. McGill previously worked for Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, another law firm that has represented public safety unions and disbanded in 2013 amid allegations of misconduct.

In 2012, for example, the firm was accused of hiring private investigators to tail a Costa Mesa councilman using a GPS device and of calling in a false DUI report on another councilman during heated negotiations between that city and its police union.

McGill was never accused of any wrongdoing in those incidents.

However, McGill and every other partner in the now-defunct firm were named as defendants in an April 2014 federal civil lawsuit brought by the Peace Officers Research Association of California.

PORAC manages a Legal Defense Fund, a trust fund that pays for legal services for public safety personnel.

The suit alleged that McGill’s previous law firm conspired to steal from the trust fund and violated the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

The suit was settled and the terms of that settlement are sealed.

Adams defended his colleague, telling The Tribune that while McGill was named in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were required by law to specifically name all partners in the firm.

“The court system then weeds out the uninvolved parties through the discovery process,” Adams wrote. “No bar complaint was ever levied against Michael.”

Adams added that every lawyer in the disbanded firm was initially removed from the list of PORAC attorneys for some period of time.

“The bottom line is several who had allegations against them were never put back on the panel while Michael McGill is on the panel today,” Adams wrote.

Cindy Forbes, the executive director of PORAC, did not return several requests for comment.

Adams added: “To say that we have ties to Lackie, Dammeier, etc., could not be further from reality. While that firm chose a path of hardball union tactics, our firm focused on building the relationships with our counterparts.”

Schafer said he was aware of McGill’s career history and took it into account before asking the firm to make a pitch to the POA.

“We did look into that and interviewed Mike to hear his side of the story because, frankly, I was curious,” Schafer said, noting that the union will deal primarily with Adams. “I’m fairly confident that he shares the same philosophy as the rest (of the firm).”

“We have no reason to believe that Mr. Adams or his firm intends to mirror the aggressive approach of the defunct Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir firm,” Irons wrote.