Police vote to keep union
By MIKE BRASSFIELD and LEANORA MINAI
ST. PETERSBURG -- In an intense, hard-fought election Thursday, the city's police officers voted to keep the labor union they have instead of bringing in a rival union to represent them.
Officers are staying with the Police Benevolent Association, the sometimes combative union that has represented them since 1974. The PBA won Thursday's election, 214-122, over the other union, the more management-friendly Fraternal Order of Police.
Within the St. Petersburg Police Department, feelings were strong on both sides of the debate. Three out of four officers voted in a secret ballot. One off-duty officer, Gary Bodnar, drove 200 miles from Port St. Lucie to cast his vote.
The election prompted the PBA's leaders to respond to complaints from some members who think the union is too antagonistic toward the city and police administrators. PBA leaders signaled that they might not be quite as outspoken in the future.
"Now's the time to mend the fences," said Bill LauBach, the PBA's executive director. "We're going to continue to protect the interests of our members, and that requires us to be contentious at times. But we're not going to disagree just to disagree."
The PBA immediately reversed course on one thing: It is not going to hold a vote of confidence among its members to see whether officers support new police Chief Chuck Harmon, who has been chief for only three weeks.
"A vote of confidence is terribly premature," LauBach said. "The membership was not in favor of it. We decided that Chuck Harmon deserves a shot."
The PBA will keep bargaining with the city for a new contract. The previous one expired, and the city and union are negotiating the officers' future wage increases and pension benefits.
Some officers are fed up with the PBA. Burglary Detective Clevan Wyatt voted for the Fraternal Order of Police, saying it was time for a change because the PBA is "constantly bickering" with the city and has a hostile attitude toward officials.
"They need to be fired, and that's the bottom line," said Wyatt, a 15-year veteran. "We've had it."
Most officers say they're sticking with the PBA because the union fights hard for them.
"I've been with them ever since I've been on," said patrol Officer Kenneth Kokotek, a 19-year veteran. "My belief is the FOP is more of a social club -- a place to get together. The PBA sticks up for all of the officers out here."
The PBA represents officers at 10 Pinellas County law enforcement agencies, from St. Pete Beach to Tarpon Springs.
The Pinellas FOP mostly represents Pinellas County sheriff's deputies but has gained members in St. Petersburg's police force.
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