County officials are filing an assault complaint with the Santa Ana Police Department against Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino in the wake of allegations that the labor leader threatened county negotiators with bodily harm during a bargaining session earlier in the week.
“At the January 8 meeting, Mr. Berardino verbally abused and physically threatened with violence members of the county negotiating team,” wrote County CEO Mike Giancola in a letter Friday to OCEA President Lezlee Neebe.
“We have collected numerous written statements from the county negotiations team which corroborates this assertion,” wrote Giancola in the letter, which also stated that a complaint would be filed with Santa Ana police because the incident occurred at OCEA headquarters, which is within the city limits.
Berardino referred all questions to OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir, who disputed Giancola’s written account of the confrontation, calling it "political grandstanding."
“Orange County supervisors have a history of bullying and intimidating people who tell them things they don’t want to hear. The grand jury in Orange County said county government leaders have created an atmosphere of fear. That’s what was going on the other day,” Muir said.
"Nick was simply standing up for the workers in rejecting the heavy-handed tactics and intimidation by the county government.”
Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson, who heard various accounts of the exchange, said that after the county’s chief negotiator, Bruce Barsook, delivered the county’s last, best and final offer capping nearly two years of negotiations, Berardino crumpled it up and threw it back at Barsook and told him to leave the OCEA offices.
When Barsook didn’t immediately comply, Berardino took off his coat and charged at him saying, “I’m going to f*** you up,” according to Nelson.
Nelson said two sheriff’s officials — one from the OCEA negotiating team and another from the county team — had to restrain Berardino.
Muir also disputed that account.
“Did it get heated? Absolutely,” she said, “but there was no assault.”
Muir said Berardino did not utter those words but emphatically told Barsook and county negotiators to get out of the OCEA building.
Nonethless, according to Giancola’s letter to OCEA, the county will seek to formally have Berardino barred from future negotiating sessions, will no longer meet at OCEA offices and will have a security detail accompany negotiators.
“The County is concerned about the future safety of its employees during negotiations with OCEA,” wrote Giancola.
Labor talks at the county have gotten increasingly tense, especially after county supervisors lost an estimated $73 million in ongoing property tax revenue as a result of their refinancing of the 1994 bankruptcy debt in 2006.
After Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget staff took back the property tax money, OCEA and county officials spent the last several years working collaboratively to try to get the allocation back without much success.
To date, county officials have taken a hard line in negotiations with all of the county's employee unions. County managers barely avoided an imposition of terms through mediation, and the attorneys union is in the midst of legal action against the county, even filing an unfair labor practice complaint.
To this point, most of the tension between the two sides has revolved around getting workers to pay more into their pensions and forgo pay raises.
Earlier this month, the Alliance of Orange County Workers, which represents about 400 maintenance workers and mechanics, accepted a labor deal with no raises and fewer pension benefits for new hires.