Haar: Last-Minute Ploy Quietly Exempted UConn Police From State Rules

A measure buried deep in a last-minute, 326-page bill at the state Capitol Wednesday night exempted the UConn police force from state hiring rules, allowing the university to create its own job classifications that could lead to more pay for officers.

Many, perhaps most lawmakers considering it did not even know it existed. The change was not proposed publicly and did not receive a hearing during the session that ended at midnight Wednesday, though it did come up for debate in 2013.

UConn police officers will still be in the union that represents protective services officers in various state agencies, including the state police. But under the change, UConn, which has an authorized force of 76 sworn officers, will now "establish classifications" on its own for the police jobs at all of the university's campuses, including the health center in Farmington.

UConn Police Chief Barbara O'Connor pushed for the change, saying it would add flexibility and speed by giving her the ability to hire from a list that is tailor made, rather than the longer list of approved applicants for all protective services jobs compiled by the state Department of Administrative Services.

O'Connor declined to comment on the pending bill through UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz late Wednesday, but Reitz said that on the state's list of applicants, "there may be people whose original intent was not a campus police position. It just helps you kind of narrow it."

So it gives UConn more control. But the change — which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will sign because it was part of a massive "budget implementer bill," basically a legislative kitchen sink — could lead to abuses of the sort that the Department of Administrative Services is designed to avert.

And even it were good policy, it shouldn't have happened as a secretive insert to a midnight bill in the waning minutes of the legislative session, buried amid dozens of unrelated measures.

Talk about keeping the public informed? Never mind the voters, this was keeping the legislators uninformed.

Even the co-chairman of the legislature's public safety committee, Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, just found out the measure was in place Tuesday — and tried to stop it. He said the carve-out could lead to lower standards and other problems and that some unions have concerns about it. Sneaking it into law, he said, "is not fair, it's not right."

UConn came under criticism in 2011 after The Courant's Jon Lender revealed that then-UConn Police Chief Robert Hurd made $256,000 a year — far more than most of his counterparts in similar jobs around the country — and Maj. Robert Blicher made $202,000 a year. Both men retired that year, in their mid-50s.

O'Connor was hired in 2011 at a salary of $164,000 and now makes $172,935.

The measure is designed to prevent UConn from paying higher wages to its police force, said Ben Barnes, Malloy's budget chief, who called the bill a sensible measure. Barnes may well exert tight budget controls while he's in office, and indeed he does. But a reading of the language appears to show some wiggle room for UConn, and some people, including Dargan, believe the university could now pay its officers more than state troopers earn, by enhancing their job descriptions or application requirements.

Broadly, the change is part of a trend under which UConn and other state agencies seek and receive the right to make their own rules for hiring, construction and other activities.

"We've made a lot of carve-outs for UConn," said state Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold. "How many projects ended up being not done competently?"

He named a few, in construction. And when it comes to removing significant groups of unionized state employees from the classified services, an open debate — unlike happened Wednesday night at the state Capitol — seems the better way to run the show.

Read The Haar Report at http://www.courant.com/haar

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