Payback Time

Burned by police union opposition, a councilman counterattacks

 Bruce Tatro's tenure in the northwest Houston District A Council seat has been marked by nonstop political feuds since he took office in 1998. Outwardly mild-mannered in a Clark Kent style, the bookish Tatro has a behind-closed-doors temper that has generated plenty of bad vibes and rapid staff turnover.

He and predecessor Helen Huey had repeated verbal and written skirmishes during his first term, and he continues to hold the unofficial title as Mayor Lee Brown's least favorite councilmember, after numerous testy Council table exchanges between the two. His frequent Lone Ranger stance in opposing ordinances has led colleagues to dub him "Dr. No."

Now Tatro has taken on the Houston Police Officers' Union, which achieved archenemy status with the councilman's office when it threw its support -- and PAC money -- to his unsuccessful opponent, Toni Lawrence, in last fall's municipal elections.

Clark (with the uniformed Marticiuc) says Tatro's pursuing a vendetta against the police union.
Deron Neblett
Clark (with the uniformed Marticiuc) says Tatro's pursuing a vendetta against the police union.

Union mailers accused the councilman of pro-Nazi sentiments because he defended former death camp guard John Demjanjuk in a Chronicle op-ed piece. His support for the public display of the Confederate flag likewise brought union charges that he was hostile to minorities, something the union itself has been accused of in the past by minority officers.

Last month Tatro sent an interoffice memo to Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford concerning the police union's use of legislative leave, which allows its leaders paid time off to lobby legislators and conduct other union-related business.

"I request that HPD provide my office with documentation of both billings to and remittances from the various police organizations that applied for and received legislative leave from 1990 through 1999," the memo read. Tatro sent an identical request to Fire Chief Lester Tyra. A Tatro aide says Bradford did respond to the request but that nothing has been forthcoming from Tyra.

HPOU Governmental Relations Director Mark Clark accuses the councilman of using his city office to pursue a political vendetta against the union.

"What's he's trying to do is cause us some grief. What it gets down to is a little councilman who gets very angry and then he wants to use his office to show people that he's got the ability to inflict pain."

Clark also claims Tatro has tried unsuccessfully to get local news reporters to investigate the HPOU's use of legislative leave by its members. The HPD public information office recently received open-records requests along the lines of Tatro's memo from KTRK Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino and KPRC Channel 2's Tony Kovaleski. Obviously somebody has been seriously shopping the legislative leave story.

"It's all Bruce trying to get somebody to listen to him," contends Clark. "Somebody, anybody."

The truth is a bit more convoluted than that. Earlier this year an unknown party circulated a package of documents at City Hall, fronted with a cover sheet accusing Clark, HPOU President Hans Marticiuc and other union members of abusing the leave policy. Because many of the documents came from within the police department, the source may have been members of the HPOU's labor rival, the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union.

"These officers are employees of the City of Houston whose primary responsibility is to provide public safety to its citizens," stated the document. "Initial intelligence indicates that Mark Clark has turned his position into a fulltime job." It notes that in a nonlegislative year Marticiuc took 153 days of legislative leave and Clark took 201.

The package also includes the union's reported expenditures opposing Tatro in the last campaign, including $20,800 to a New York City consultant for "political mailouts against Tatro." It also includes payroll sheets documenting Marticiuc's and Clark's leave requests.

"About two months ago we got information that [the HPOU] had a couple of officers that had literally been on the city payroll while they were doing full-time union work," says Tatro. "Which means the taxpayers are paying for an officer that's doing private business effectively while he should be on duty."

According to Tatro, that packet of accusations and documents is what piqued his interest in the legislative leave issue, not any desire for revenge. But he admits the rough treatment he received from the HPOU political action committee during the election may have made him more inclined to delve into the matter.

"I was just shocked at the aggressiveness with which they pursued it. I thought it was pretty raw," Tatro says. He claims that during the election several HPOU members even escorted opponent Lawrence to a campaign function while in uniform on city time.

Tatro says he wants the police department to closely examine the legislative leave issue to see whether the HPOU officials are abusing the state law to become full-time unionists.

"You can't be full-time on legislative leave, and you can only take legislative leave during a session or a Council meeting," says the councilman, who adds that he hopes to put together evidence of the violations to be investigated in-house by HPD Internal Affairs. "If we've got taxpayers paying for police and they're not doing any police work, then that's substantive, and that needs to be pursued and looked into."

Clark replies that the union officials are bargaining agents for the primary police union and that legislative leave includes a wide range of duties representing members. He argues that the state law authorizing such leave is open to a wider interpretation than Tatro is giving it, and that the work he, Marticiuc and other union members do while on leave fits within the law's definition. He notes that Bradford supports the leave policy and that the union repays the city for work hours taken as leave.

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