By CHRISTOPHER KEATING
7:14 PM EST, January 17, 2012
In a victory for the state police union, a judge has refused Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's request to dismiss a lawsuit by the union regarding Malloy's layoff of 56 troopers.
The judge also said that the state's law requiring a minimum of 1,248 troopers is "mandatory,'' even though some governors and some legislators have ignored the law through the years.
The state police union said that Malloy was wrong to lay off the troopers because the state was already below the mandated 1,248 minimum level, and the layoffs lowered that number by 56 troopers.
Superior Court Judge James Graham said the union "has standing to bring this claim'' and rejected the Malloy administration's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. As a result, the case will move forward now on the merits.
But Andrew McDonald, Malloy's chief legal counsel, said the administration is appealing the ruling to the state Appellate Court with the intention of eventually getting a ruling from the Connecticut Supreme Court.
"We believe that there are substantial errors of law in the court's decision, and we intend to file an appeal in the near future,'' McDonald told Capitol Watch. "The judge acknowledged that this statute is susceptible to multiple interpretations, and I have no doubt he did the best he could with no controlling precedent on the subject. The statute itself was the source of confusion when passed.''
In recounting the history of the law, the judge cited comments made by legislators on the floor of the state House of Representatives in 1998. Rep. Stephen Dargan, who is quoted in the judge's decision, is the only lawmaker cited who is still serving in the legislature. McDonald cited Dargan's quotation on page 15 of the 32-page ruling regarding the minimum level.
"I'm sure if he or she, whoever the commissioner is at that time, is a little underneath that staffing level, we ask them to try to keep that at that level because this was the staffing level that the commissioner would like to see,'' Dargan said in 1998, as quoted in the judge's ruling.
In the 13 years since the law was enacted, the legislature has provided funding to meet the 1,248 minimum level in only three of those years, McDonald said.
In his ruling, the judge said that "the most reasonable reading of the statute and its history indicates that the statute is mandatory.''
Since the law is subject to interpretation, some insiders believe that the legislature will likely take action this year to clarify the law and make it crystal clear. That could even include taking the number completely out of state law because the state does not currently require a minimum number of prison guards, probation officers, or social workers at the Department of Children and Families.
The attorney general's office, which is defending the Malloy administration, said, "We respectfully disagree with the court’s conclusion that the statute creates a mandatory, judicially enforceable staffing threshold. We intend to appeal in order to obtain a definitive ruling on that question.”
The 56 troopers who were laid off have already been hired back because of numerous retirements in the force. The union argues that the Malloy administration is not following the law by ignoring the 1,248 minimum and allowing the state police to operate with fewer than 1,100 sworn troopers.
The order to hire them back was made in October as 40 veteran state troopers retired since the layoffs, providing enough money to allow the 56 rookie troopers to be rehired, state officials said. The 40 higher-paid veterans earned more than the aggregate amount as the 56 newcomers.
With the motion to dismiss rejected, the case now moves forward. The state has ignored the 1,248 minimum law at times over the past decade, but Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell was in compliance as recently as February 2009 when there were 1,283 troopers. Since then, the number has been dropping, and it fell further when Malloy laid off the 56 troopers last year.
Even with the rehirings, the state police had 1,086 troopers, still below the state-mandated minimum. The troopers were laid off Aug. 24 to help balance the two-year state budget after a lengthy debate over a savings-and-concessions deal with the Malloy administration. Only the troopers and a union representing supervisors for prison guards rejected Malloy's two-year wage freeze.
Now, the rookie troopers have not only gotten their jobs back, but all troopers received a 2.5 percent pay increase July 1.
Malloy's decision to lay off the 56 rookies marked the first trooper layoffs since the state's fiscal crisis in 1991 under Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. The state has suffered through recessions, budget deficits, Wall Street losses, and economic ups and downs during the 20 years since then, but troopers had always been treated as a special class in the state workforce and not subject to reductions.
After saying in August that he wanted to avert the layoffs, Malloy predicted, "We are experiencing a large number of retirements, and I believe that we'll be able to reclaim some of this talent as time moves forward.''
Andrew Matthews, president of the troopers' union, immediately denounced Malloy's move for layoffs at the time as "an unjustifiable risk to public safety'' that would backfire.
But both Matthews and the state police commissioner, Reuben Bradford, were happy when the troopers were rehired.
Matthews said at the time of the rehirings that he looked forward to a cooling-down period with the Malloy administration and the state police brass, as well as reduced anxiety among his rank-and-file troopers.
"I've had enough stress for one man's lifetime over the past three months,'' he said.
In his 32-page ruling, Judge Graham cited various legislators who were involved in the floor debate in the state House of Representatives, including Dargan, the longtime co-chairman of the legislature's public safety committee. He also quoted Rep. F. Philip Prelli and Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford, who have both since left the legislature for other jobs in state government.
"We need to see if there's a more expedient process to move it along,'' Dargan said, adding that the slow hiring of new trooper classes sometimes keeps the number below the 1,248 minimum. "At one time with Rell, we were over 1,300. ... You don't want to lower the standards. You want to try to hire the best and the brightest.''
A typical class could include 60 to 75 rookie troopers, and those numbers could drop off by 10 percent as the troopers fail to finish the training academy, officials said.
The turnover within the state police was relatively high last year. Many veterans left because their pensions and benefits would not be as lucrative for those leaving after Oct. 1. When the 40 latest retirements are included, 135 troopers will have retired in 2011, according to the union.
Upon graduating from the six-month police academy, rookie troopers at the bottom of the pay scale are paid slightly more than $51,000 a year before overtime. But many veteran troopers accumulate large amounts of overtime and make more than $100,000 a year. Some sergeants earn more than $200,000 a year.
By twice rejecting the wage freeze by wide margins over several months, troopers also rejected the chance for four years of layoff protection that other state employees received.
In order to boost the numbers, Commissioner Reuben Bradford has said previously that he wants to hire a new class of 60 to 80 troopers by June 5, the date when a current list of candidates will expire.
For more than a decade, the number of troopers has been hotly contested. The state legislature placed the minimum number at 1,248, but lawmakers voted to postpone that number for three years when the state was facing tough fiscal times under Gov.John G. Rowlandin 2003.
Bradford said he has called for a study to determine the number of troopers needed. Matthews said he first heard of the study on the day Bradford announced it, adding that he wanted to know more about it.
Unlike other state workers who agreed to a two-year wage freeze, the troopers will not only keep their jobs but they will also receive raises.
According to the state, the 40 veteran troopers were earning salaries totaling $2.25 million, compared with a total of $1.88 million for the 56 rookies.
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant