The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 this week to appeal a decision by an administrative law judge concluding that their principal labor negotiator acted in bad faith during contract talks with the county attorney’s association in the Spring of 2012.
About 500 attorneys working in the district attorneys office, the public defender and county counsel sued after supervisors imposed labor terms on them. Last month they won their challenge.
The April 28 ruling by Judge Eric J. Cu calls on the county to return wage and benefit concessions made to the unit (plus 7 percent interest) and also “compensate association unit members for any financial losses directly resulting from the county’s March 5, 2013 unlawful imposition.”
“The county participated in the negotiations preceding imposition in bad faith,” Cu stated in the decision.
Specifically, the ruling takes county officials to task for an abrupt change in negotiating tactics that coincided with the 2012 ousters of CEO Tom Mauk and Human Resources Director Carl Crown and the rise of supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson.
The lone vote among supervisors against the appeal was cast by Supervisor Todd Sptizer, who favors talking with negotiators for the attorneys before deciding whether to appeal.
This week, Nelson stood by the county’s chief negotiator, Bruce Barsook, saying Cu erred in his decision.
“It’s one thing to argue about terms but to use the term, “bad faith,” that’s a bit hard to swallow,” Nelson said.
In his decision, Cu said Barsook lied in response to pressing questions from the attorneys about the county’s ability to produce real-time expense data.
At issue in the stalled contract talks is pressure from county supervisors to make every bargaining unit pay for their full share of pension costs without any salary bump to cushion the shock or phasing in of the payment.
“This isn’t about Bruce Barsook,” Nelson added.
“We have to appeal,” Nelson said. “The guy got the facts wrong and we don’t have a lot of time.”
“That’s just not true,” countered Spitzer, who insisted that the county could have met with the attorneys before filing an appeal.
“We could have not voted to appeal and simply directed them (county staff) to prepare documents. And we could have talked to the attorneys. They (the board of supervisors) chose to not do that. It sends a very unsettling message to the attorneys,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer is demanding that Barsook be sacked and the negotiations with the attorneys be held in public.
“Barsook can no longer be the negotiators for the attorneys. He’s damaged goods,” Spitzer said.
Following Tuesday’s closed session vote among county supervisors on the issue, Spitzer responded to a reporter’s text seeking comment by stating, “I am upset about appealing after being accused and findings of bad faith which was before my time. I believe we should engage in immediate public discussions to hear from the attorneys about their lack of good faith negotiations. I am tired of relying entirely on an intermediary when we are ultimately responsible. We should take all discussions to public forum. Back and forth at great expense is backfiring.”
Reached later for comment, Spitzer said the current approach lacks civility.
“How do you vote to appeal after you got a scathing decision from an administrative law judge saying we negotiated in bad faith,” Spitzer said.
“I am so tired of communicating in closed session with our lawyers,” Spitzer said. “This whole idea of hiring outside counsel was to facilitate discussion. I think discussions have become more difficult.”
Spitzer said his colleagues have largely turned negotiations with the county’s workforce into a political bloodsport, encouraged by some of the party’s most influential members.
“There’s a feeling that people are getting brownie points with a constituency,” Spitzer said.
But it isn’t producing results, he insists.
Two years into the negotiations, most groups have had terms imposed, bills for the negotiators have surpassed the million-dollar mark and now there’s indications of bad faith bargaining.
That has Spitzer publicly calling for a timeout.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been a county employee, I’ve been on and off the board (of supervisors). The (pension) system needs to be reformed but I don’t like the posturing and the stance as if our employees are aliens from another planet. What ever happened to having discussions about what we need as a county to be financially viable and what they need as employees,” Spitzer said.
Even Nelson said the present situation potentially calls for a new approach.
“I don’t necessarily disagree with what Todd’s saying,” Nelson said in response. “I’m not against sitting down and talking and I’m not against doing it in public.”