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By R. Scott Moxley
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A Garden Grove cop claims his union activities cost him a promotion and more
Garden Grove Police officer Mark Hutchinson alleges he is off the job after nearly 25 years because he fought for higher wages and pensions for fellow officers, according to a suit filed against the city of Garden Grove in May 2007. As president of the police union in 2000 and 2001, Hutchinson negotiated a total of 18 percent in raises and a 3 percent increase in pensions. The suit claims his role as a union official in these negotiations led to his being passed up for a deserved promotion, resulted in a hostile work environment, and that political enemies derailed his career and blocked him from making sergeant in retaliation.
Although Hutchinson declined to comment for this story, his attorney, Marc Grossman, says he is on leave for disability resulting from a stressful work environment and is collecting worker's-compensation insurance.
Garden Grove Police Captain Patrick Thrasher, Hutchinson's commander, did not return phone calls.
Hutchinson, who became president of the Garden Grove Police Association in the late '90s, headed a campaign for higher pay and pensions that included picketing at the televised annual Christmas Tree Lighting in Santa Ana with about 70 other officers, giving interviews on television and protesting at new development projects in the city with signs urging people "not to move to (Garden Grove)" because of a shortage of police, according to lawsuit documents.
Hutchinson and the union argued that the city was losing officers to other local agencies because it wasn't being competitive with its wages, resulting in understaffing and "burnout," according to the documents.
After negotiations described in the lawsuit as "heated, to say the least," the Police Association eventually negotiated with the city in 2001. But the successful campaign might have ruffled a few feathers among officials.
According to lawsuit documents, former Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater, who was known as a champion of redevelopment, expressed that the union's picketing was "wrong" and that "it did not look good for the city." Broadwater, now a Garden Grove city councilman, did not return phone calls as of press time.
According to lawsuit documents, Chief of Police Joseph Polisar told Hutchinson, "It is in your best interest to stop this stuff." Polisar did not return phone calls as of press time.
In 2004, the then-21-year veteran began testing for a sergeant position. According to documents produced by the city, Hutchinson's score placed him fourth in line for a promotion. Throughout the next few years, the officers who scored one, two and three were all successively promoted.
Then, according to documents, the officer who scored fifth was promoted, followed by the officer in the sixth position.
Wondering why he was seemingly being passed over, Hutchinson began asking around and, lawsuit documents allege, was told he was "dead on the list."
In an alleged private conversation with one of his superiors, Hutchinson discovered his being passed over was because of his vocal union leadership, the protests and statements he made in public, according to documents. Other superior officers also allegedly told him, "He should not feel pressured to rank first on the list" next time he tested for sergeant, and he "could come out No. 1 on the written and oral parts of the test, but he would never pass the in-house" evaluation phase.
Another officer, according to lawsuit documents, admitted that he was instructed to "make [Hutchinson's] performance look bad" on an evaluation.
When Hutchinson brought this up again to his superiors, he was told, "They wanted to see a lengthy, consistent pattern of behavior from [Hutchinson] that was different than the old Mark."
Documents filed by the city in its defense against the lawsuit said that Hutchinson was told he was not "demonstrating consistent improvements in his ability to exercise good judgment, interpersonal skills and technical skills," and that he should re-apply for sergeant.
Garden Grove city attorney Thomas Nixon says the lawsuit is "completely groundless."
"The city acted within the law at all times in this case. Beyond that, because it involves personnel-related issues, I'm not in a position to comment," Nixon says.
Grossman became Hutchinson's attorney after his first one was dismissed for a conflict of interest. The former lawyer represented an officer who was promoted instead of Hutchinson in a 2006 disciplinary hearing.
Grossman says that, even if some people didn't like what he had to say, Hutchinson's union activities were protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"The subject he was speaking about was of public interest," Grossman says. "It would be illegal to keep those issues secret.
"This isn't a private employer; this is the government that employs him," he says. "This is tax dollars we're speaking about."
Although the lawsuit seeks an injunction that would automatically promote Hutchinson to sergeant, Grossman says it is unlikely he will ever return to law enforcement.
"Unless [the Garden Grove police] change their ways, he can't go back," Grossman says. "He can't go back to a hostile environment where they're going to retaliate against him for expressing his rights.
"And I think it would be very hard for a 50-year-old cop to get another job in law enforcement after being through what he's been through," he says.