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Originally published Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 7:49 PM

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State examiner rejects police-guild complaint about legal representation

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes acted within "management prerogatives" when he ended a longstanding contract with an outside law firm and moved much police-defense work in-house, according to the decision

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A state examiner has rejected an unfair-labor-practice complaint filed by the Seattle Police Officers' Guild that challenged the City Attorney's decision to end a longstanding contract with a private law firm and handle in-house much of the defense of police officers who need legal representation.

In a nine-page decision issued Tuesday, Emily H. Martin, an examiner with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), found that the change was not a mandatory subject of bargaining as alleged by the guild, and that the city's action fell within its "management prerogatives."

The guild filed the complaint last year after City Attorney Pete Holmes announced he was not renewing the city's contract of nearly 40 years with the Seattle law firm Stafford Frey Cooper. The firm no longer exists under that name and has re-emerged under a new name.

Under the new approach, police officers in legal trouble would be primarily represented by the City Attorney's Office or, in some cases, outside counsel hired through competitive bidding. Included is complex litigation alleging misconduct, wrongful arrest, wrongful death, excessive use of force and violations of federal civil rights.

Holmes estimated at the time that the city would save an estimated $800,000 annually.

The guild, in its complaint, alleged the change interfered with employee rights. It asked the commission to intervene and require the city to bargain, to pay its legal fees and to restore the status quo.

In a written statement Tuesday, Holmes said, "I am gratified that the PERC examiner upheld my decision to move much of the police action work in-house. The driving force behind the change was, and remains, the City's austere budget climate. The City is now playing a much more supportive role in policy — by having a closer working relationship with the individual officers and the department."

Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the guild, couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

Ron Smith, secretary-treasurer of the guild, said in an email Tuesday, "Though we haven't had the chance to review the ruling in full, nor consult with counsel, we always reserve all our legal options." One option is to go to court, Smith added.

O'Neill previously has said the unfair-labor-practice complaint was necessary because the guild's contract requires the city to follow "past practice" in matters of police litigation.

O'Neill also maintained the contract indicates the city was required to retain Stafford Frey Cooper to represent police.

Martin, in her decision, cited the guild's "assumption" that an in-house attorney would provide inferior representation than Stafford Frey Cooper.

But the City Attorney's Office has filled its in-house positions with experienced attorneys whose work hasn't been shown to be of less quality, Martin wrote, noting that the city planned to bring 75 percent of the police-action legal representation in-house.

Currently, three staff attorneys are assigned to police cases and Holmes selected three outside firms last year to represent the city, including one with a former Stafford Frey Cooper attorney

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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