Manitowoc: A Study of Legal Chaos

By Robert West, WPPA Consultant

It is not unusual for local police officers to have working difficulties with supervisors, the chief of police or sheriff. It is unusual when these difficulties become giant legal matters costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Manitowoc has become the poster child for misdirection of a simple dispute.

Around 2004 or 2005, Manitowoc police officers were beginning to have increasing problems with the Chief of Police. Yes, there had been issues earlier but they generally had been resolved through grievances or worked out before they reached that level. None had ever been decided by an outside arbitrator. The disagreements with the Chief caused him to retaliate, bringing things to a head in 2006. The Manitowoc Professional Police Association (MPPA) consolidated all of this frustration into a vote of “no-confidence” regarding the Chief. The results were overwhelming in support of the resolution with only a few not registering support. Prior to the vote, leaders had compiled the many complaints into a list and the union members carefully deliberated on each assertion and concern. The vote itself did not include any action. It merely represented a statement for public consumption that these officers were very concerned about the manner in which the department was being run.

The MPPA then turned to its state organization, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA), for advice. On two separate occasions, staff representatives of the WPPA met with local union members to discuss the issues and map out a course of action. In the end the local decided that they needed to demonstrate their unified view opposing the Chief’s management style by attending meetings of the City Council and Police and Fire Commission and presenting their concerns in open session. In preparation for these meetings, they “fleshed-out” their concerns by enumerating each of 37 issues with supporting documentation.

Following the meetings with the City Council and PFC, where nearly all of the officers attended wearing shirts identifying them as MPPA members, the Chief requested that the Union and his management team engage in a labor/management cooperation process. The Chief had secured legal counsel for himself, a well respected management lawyer, and the Chief’s lawyer worked with the WPPA to secure the services of WERC staff member Marshall Gratz. The parties met for two days and reviewed many issues. At the end of the two days, an agreement for a procedure to continue meeting was made. The Union representatives took the agreement back to its membership and it was rejected. Union members expressed concern that the Chief lacked sincerity and was simply stalling. Before there was an opportunity for further talks, the Chief requested the Mayor to commence an investigation of the operation of the Police Department.

It is at this point that the story became one of the most unique disputes in Wisconsin labor relations history. The Mayor agreed to endorse the investigation request, and the City obtained the service of a large Madison law firm to conduct the investigation. We are not aware what the contract included or if there even was a contract, however, the law firm supplied two lawyers who collected data and began interviewing all of the employees. They compiled a huge record of interviews and documents, and, after a full year, issued a report. The 70-plus pages of the report recommended that the Chief be fired and charged with various crimes. It further recommended the terminations of a Lieutenant and Detective Sergeant Brian Swetlik for allegedly lying during the course of the interviews with investigators. The Lieutenant and Swetlik, as well as the Chief, were all placed on administrative leave, which included retention of all pay and benefits. In the next few months the Chief reached an agreement with the City where he resigned and received a settlement of approximately one year’s salary. No charges were ever filed. The Lieutenant and Swetlik were advised that they were being terminated and so the process of termination had been engaged with charges drafted and filed with the PFC. None of the allegations of wrongdoing involved activities occurred in the performance of their duties. The lawyers who conducted the original investigation had already billed over a quarter of a million dollars and now were retained to pursue the terminations on behalf of the City.

The City retained a hearing examiner to conduct the hearings, make a record and recommendation to the PFC. In February, Swetlik went first. After two days of hearing the City lawyers rested. The WPPA supplied legal representation to Swetlik, the very respected and experienced former WPPA General Counsel, Gordon McQuillen. McQuillen moved that the charges be dismissed because of the City’s failure to meet its total burden of proof. The Examiner concurred and recommended a dismissal of the charges to the PFC. On May 20, 2008, the PFC voted to endorse the Examiner’s recommendation and return Swetlik to work.

In late April, the same Examiner issued his decision on the Lieutenant finding that he had lied. In the decision, he suggested that, while the Lieutenant’s dismissal would not be inappropriate, he also recommended the PFC take into consideration his long years of service to the community. That matter is still pending.

As of this writing Swetlik remains on leave pending administrative decisions on his return to work. The WPPA has also filed a Prohibited Practice Complaint with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission alleging anti-union interference on the part of the City. That matter is also pending. Swetlik has secured private counsel and will pursue additional claims against the City. Oh yes, and it is expected that the City’s legal bill for the original lawyer/investigators, which has exceeded a half-million dollars, will easily reach the three quarter of a million dollar level before this is over.

Swetlik, a highly respected detective for many years, now says he will never be the same. The toll this has taken on his family and himself has been substantial. Tears flowed freely from the several hundred people gathered to hear the verdict of the PFC to return him to work. While Swetlik has been exonerated, he still feels his reputation has been severely injured, making it additionally difficult to do his job. As a dedicated law enforcement professional, he will return to duty and do what it takes to get back in the swing of things. The current Acting Chief has also pledged to make Swetlik’s return smooth and fair. Swetlik in his statement to the media thanked his friends and colleagues for their support and praised his union for standing with him throughout the process.

After over a million dollars of legal fees, settlements and lost work, this situation is still not over. Much will need to be resolved and the saga of legal chaos in Manitowoc continues.

The Manitowoc Saga Continues

This week, the WPPA settled the Prohibitive Labor Practice which it filed after the private investigators hired by the City recommended that Detective Sergeant Brian Swetlik be terminated. The parties had previously agreed to hold this matter in abeyance until the Police and Fire Commission heard the case. In May, the PFC cleared Swetlik of all charges.

While Swetlik had been on administrative leave with pay since Sept of 2008, he was not eligible for overtime and vacation. The settlement this week restores all potential overtime and leaves. Next, Swetlik will independently pursue additional compensation for the numerous violations of his rights. To this point, this case has resulted in the former chief’s resignation and a lieutenant had his recommended termination reduced to a 25 day suspension. The City has spent upwards of $600,000 on legal fees. Several City Council members have expressed concern on the manner in which this entire matter has been handled and are continuing to investigate. Lastly, the Mayor is facing a serious challenge in his bid for reelection.

WPPA staff, consultants and lawyers have been in involved in this Manitowoc saga since day one assisting our members.

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