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A grievance arbitration over seniority demonstrates the high mountain City Hall must climb to bring reason to Buffalo's contract with its police union. Past city negotiators gave away too much in management rights.

In this case, a police captain challenged overtime opportunities. He and his union maintained the contract required that overtime for inspectors and captains be offered to people in those ranks in strict order of their seniority.

The city countered by saying that the practice had been to follow seniority within specific assignment groups, such as narcotics or homicide work. That was sensible. One job isn't just like another. But the arbitrator concluded there was no proof the practice as stated by the city had been "ongoing for a long time" and had been mutually accepted.

The arbitrator ruled in favor of the union. The result is that a captain engaged in a specialized activity -- rather than running a precinct -- will be replaced, whenever regular hours run out, by a captain selected solely on seniority.

The union argument that the 26 captains are interchangeable parts defies human nature. People have differing experience, talents and specialties. To replace a captain engaged in a particular activity with someone unfamiliar with the task at hand undermines continuity and could hurt public safety.

Common sense says the city should not have agreed to the seniority in overtime provision back in 1986. But it did. For better police management that gives citizens their money's worth, Buffalo should bargain now to get rid of it.

The big beneficiaries are officers near retirement because pensions are based on total pay, including overtime, in final years. The public interest ought to count for more.

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