As Orange County government prepares for the Super Bowl of labor negotiations with contracts for the three major employee unions up for renewal in 2012, John Moorlach, arguably the county's highest-profile union opponent, is set to take over the chairmanship of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
And while that might prompt many observers to predict a bloodbath, Moorlach instead seems focused on getting a deal.
"It's about collaboration," Moorlach said during an interview Monday. "This is going to take all of us, knowing full well how difficult our circumstances are right now."
"There are unions that will grumble about me. There are those that grumble about public employee unions. But in the end, we have to get along," he said.
That kind of message, coming from a man who called deputy union leaders "thugs" after his 2006 election victory, triggered a quick, positive response from the county's major labor groups.
"This is a rare occasion where I agree with Supervisor Moorlach," said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association. "It's going to take cooperation and collaboration. Hey, it's a two-way street, and we're entering it with a positive attitude."
Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said, "I'm happy that Supervisor Moorlach is saying these things about wanting to work collaboratively. That makes me feel like if we maintain this momentum, there's some amazing things we can do."
"We've got thick skin over here," he said of the pension lawsuit that ended last year with the county paying several million dollars to the union for attorney fees. "There's no doubt that negotiations will be difficult, but we will proceed in a very professional manner."
"I live in reality, and I'm a taxpayer in this county," said Dominguez. "We want the same thing. We want a county and sheriff's department that is fiscally prudent."
Yet Moorlach said he is prepared to challenge public labor groups over the spiraling costs of pensions, warning that the issue must be resolved.
"It's the elephant in the room," he said. "It has to be addressed in some fashion, and the labor unions have to pick the direction on how to address it. … That will be the biggest portion of our negotiations."
Moorlach acknowledged, however, that labor contacts are far from the only fiscal issue the supervisors must resolve in a year that very likely could be as difficult as the past few.
"It's dealing with a real estate market that still hasn't seen an uptick, a state government that took our vehicle license fees, a state Supreme Court that says maybe the Retired Employees Association of Orange County has a point [on costly retiree medical benefits], redevelopment agencies that have been taken away, AB 109 [prisoner realignment], and you have a state budget that is still not balanced."
Facing such challenges, Moorlach underscored the importance of the Board of Supervisors working as a unit.
"It's five of us working together with a negotiator and the union heads," he said.
"You're already seeing that kind of group-think from the board, given we are not done with the managers association," said Moorlach, referring to the refusal of supervisors to adopt a contract with managers that included bonuses in exchange for heightened pension contributions.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who is expected to take over as vice chairman, says supervisors may be in a bad position on negotiations because "we may not be able to get them to pay more" toward pensions. Under state law, supervisors cannot impose changes on pensions as they can on wages, he said.
If there is no progress on the pension issue, "then it will just come out of wages," Nelson said.
"My overall sense is there has to be fairness," Nelson said. "And I'm not going to let anybody else define fair. All these pension spikes were sold on the auspices that it wouldn't cost.
"So now we know the costs … and I think it's reasonable to ask at some point: Either change formulas going forward or what choice do we have as representatives of the taxpayers to push for an offset somewhere, either on wages or having employees paying more? … There's no free lunch."