'No one at APD running the place should be getting any sort of bonus. The fact that they haven’t been fired is their bonus' -- former City Councilor Greg Payne
Mayor Richard Berry’s administration appears to have violated city law by giving hefty retention bonuses to top Albuquerque cops even after the City Council decided to ditch the program.
The decision to continue giving the $6,000- to $12,000-a-year bonuses to 19 members of the command staff was made without approval of the Albuquerque City Council as required by the city’s budget ordinance.
City councilors, the police union and former city councilors are blasting the bonuses. One councilor suggested it is nonsensical to reward top cops whose leadership led APD to be investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for excessive use of force.
To find the money for bonuses for APD’s top brass, the administration said it is moving around $200,000 in savings within its budget. Under city law, however, departments can move money between different line items, but they can’t legally transfer funds to a program not authorized in the budget.
Councilors first learned that bonuses were going to top brass at the council’s Aug. 17 meeting, when, under questioning from Councilor Diane Gibson, city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry confirmed the bonuses – legal last fiscal year but not this year – were still being paid.
“They are,” Perry replied.
The commanders have been getting the bonuses since the current fiscal year began on July 1. Perry also said during the meeting that APD found the money by identifying “savings” within the department’s budget. He didn’t identify those savings.
City councilor Brad Winter has asked the city attorney’s office for a legal opinion on the matter. Berry’s office declined to answer questions from ABQ Free Press about the possible illegality. The newspaper sent Berry spokeswoman Rhiannon Schroeder a list of 12 questions regarding the bonuses on Aug. 19. As of Aug. 24, Schroeder had not responded.
Two former councilors said they believe the administration has clearly broken the law, and they blasted current councilors for not challenging Berry and APD.
Under the Albuquerque City Charter, the city council is the city’s policy-making body and the only body that can appropriate money for the city’s budget.
“There was no doubt that there has been a violation of the city ordinance and it was a sneaky maneuver on the part of the city administration to secure these bonuses for management staff,” said former councilor Pete Dinelli.
“They have created out of whole cloth a line-item appropriation and that is a total violation of the city ordinance. And once again you have a city council that is falling asleep at the wheel and not doing their due diligence on their oversight responsibility,” Dinelli said.
Former councilor Greg Payne ripped both the council and the administration.
“This administration treats the council with contempt; but I don’t even think they have put that much thought into it,” Payne said.
“The City Council is supposed to be the policymaking body of the city. The Council sets the direction of the city. Under the Berry administration, and [through] the willingness of the current Council membership, they have become little more than a ceremonial body,” Payne said.
“There are student councils at schools around the city that have more political gravitas than this city council. I have never seen a more meaningless and useless group of politicians.”
“It’s just a scam to get more money for a bunch of fat-cat law enforcement professionals who are already getting paid too much money,” Payne said. “No one at APD running the place should be getting any sort of bonus. The fact that they haven’t been fired is their bonus.”
City Councilor Rey Garduño, who is retiring this year, said the administration of Berry, a Republican, is “doing an end-run around the council.”
“I think this is an intentional obfuscation,” said Garduño, a Democrat. “The big question is, where are they getting the money? ‘Savings’ is not a good answer.”
Gibson, also a Democrat, said, “There is absolutely no transparency in how the command staff got into it.” Council President Ken Sanchez, a Democrat, said the council specifically decided to exclude command staff from eligibility for bonuses this year.
The retention bonus program has been mired in controversy since it was approved last November as a stopgap to keep long-time police officers from retiring. It was originally intended for street cops with more than 17 years on the job who were nearing retirement.
But shortly after the council approved a memorandum of understanding on the bonuses with the police union, the command staff found a way to give itself some of those bonuses. The loophole, Gibson and others said, was that, according to MOU, the bonuses would be available to all “sworn” officers who qualified, even though Gibson and Garduño said the bonuses were earmarked for rank-and-file police.
Gibson also said she felt pressured by the administration when it first asked for the bonuses.
“They came to us in the fall with their hair on fire saying, ‘You had better pass this or hell will freeze over,’” Gibson said. “It was only funded by the council until the end of the fiscal year, which was June 30.”
To clarify confusion of whether top APD officials should get retention bonuses, the council let the MOU expire as of July 1.
The issue of bonuses for top cops is separate and apart from a continuing bonus program aimed at retaining beat cops. For the fiscal year that began July 1, $1.7 million has been set aside for rank-and-file police – police at the rank of lieutenant and below – under a selection system devised by the administration and the union, the Albuquerque Police Officers Association.
Did it work?
Gibson and others argue that the retention bonus program didn’t do anything to keep APD officers from retiring.
Since Jan. 1, 56 officers have left APD, according to figures provided by the city. That’s nearly a full year’s loss in only six months, said APOA Vice President Shaun Willoughby.
“It was only benefiting 75 to 80 people,” he said, adding that there are nearly 700 officers who are part of the bargaining unit.
Willoughby called bonuses for top cops – who don’t patrol the streets – “another slap in the face to the rank-and-file.”
At the Aug. 17 City Council meeting, Perry told councilors that the retention bonuses are needed for the command staff because APD needs to keep its executive and institutional knowledge, especially now as it embarks on a multi-year effort to comply with a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree to curtail APD’s use of excessive force.
But Gibson and others don’t buy that argument and said that some of those command staffers are the ones who got APD into trouble.
“We are now getting a very veiled threat from them that if we don’t give them retention bonuses they are going to retire,” Gibson said. “That’s bad faith coming from the command staff.”
“Culture change comes from the top down, so maybe it’s not so horrible a thing that we lose some command staff. Someone who comes in fresh will look at our systems with new eyes. It is really critical that we really do change APD.”
— Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press
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