Following the complete collapse of labor talks with nearly 2,000 deputy sheriffs in Orange County last month, county supervisors – already turning on themselves over last month’s formal impasse in negotiations – will publicly debate today whether it’s time to entirely open up the county’s labor talks.
The effort, led by County Supervisor John Moorlach, is in turn drawing intense protests from Orange County’s union leaders who argue that transparency in negotiations shouldn’t just be reserved for labor talks but should apply to all government contracting — including multi-million dollar computer contracts, development deals and land purchases.
Last month, County Supervisor Todd Spitzer publicly questioned the tone and direction of labor talks with the deputy sheriffs after Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson declined to schedule a closed session to consider counterpoints to the formal county offer — apparently privately negotiated by Spitzer with the deputy’s union.
In the wake of a recent judge’s decision that the county negotiator acted in bad faith, Spitzer has been openly critical of continuing the approach.
“Just do everything in public including hearing from the bargaining unit so everything is understood and we don’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on “he said, she said,” Spitzer added.
Nelson, meanwhile, has called out Spitzer saying he “lacks integrity” because he votes and sounds one way in closed session and has a different face in public, especially in front of deputies.
Shortly after the last month’s dispute surfaced, Moorlach jumped out in front of his colleagues and called for opening up the county’s labor negotiations – suggesting an approach similar to the COIN (Civic Openess in Negotiation) ordinance adopted in recent years by the Costa Mesa city council.
While Moorlach noted that several aspects of COIN are already being used at the county level, such as a private negotiator and cost estimates of proposals.
Without mentioning the situation with Spitzer, Moorlach has written publicly that ex-parte communications needed better regulation.
“Any (ex parte) communications between individual supervisors and bargaining unit representatives must be disclosed in public. In other words, if a Supervisor is discussing deal points and going around the independent negotiator, the other Supervisors and the public should be noticed of this activity,” wrote Moorlach in his May 2 Moorlach Update electronic newsletter.
“It would certainly put an end to that,” Nelson said, referring to the controversy involving Spitzer.
“Any and all lobbying activity, including e-mails, letters, and conversations, must be disclosed. This would make the employee union bargaining process truly transparent,” Moorlach added.
Yet that kind of emphasis on making labor talks open has drawn a direct response from labor.
“Transparency should extend to members of the board of supervisors regarding contracts which they award to their political contributors, friends and lobbyists who bundle contributions from entities and individuals that are seeking public money,” said Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association.
“They should disclose ex-parte discussions with lobbyists, contributors and other representatives seeking public money and political contributions received from those parties,” he added.
Nelson said Berardino’s focus is misguided.
“I don’t see it as being focused on the union guy as Nick does,” Nelson said. “I see it as focused on my colleagues. I’m trying to keep track of my guys.”
Spitzer, in turn, however said that the COIN proposal would have a limited impact because “it doesn’t cover most of the board-approved ‘supposals’ that have been going back and forth for months. It’s all a farce.”
Nelson countered Berardino’s arguments about covering all advocates by noting that reforming the labor talks process shouldn’t be connected to lobby reform.
“The people who are paying the bill in labor negotiations, and only labor negotiations, only have an idea of what the deal is when the deal is already done,” he said.
Nelson said regulating the other side of the football is a discussion for another day.
“There is a valid discussion to have about lobbyists. And I’m willing to have that discussion,” Nelson said.
“Yeah,” replied Berardino. “Then have them go first.”
Nelson counters that he’s not a fan of having anybody track ex-parte conversations in politics.
“I’ve got to look at it realistically,” Nelson said. “I’m not going to become an accountant. I don’t have time to keep track of every person I talk to.”
Yet for Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, Nelson and Moorlach’s focus on COIN is anything but realistic.
“I’m not at all surprised with Chairman Nelson’s claim that this ordinance is a necessity,” Dominguez said. “It is clear that this is his reaction when he does not get his way. As Chairman I would expect him to lead. Instead he chose to engage in inappropriate public dialog.”
Dominguez argues that the COIN approach misses an important aspect of labor negotiations.
“This ordinance provides only gross cost analysis. It provides a false sense of cost because it fails to take into account competing government entities, the cost of givebacks and concessions from prior contract agreements, and the cost of recruitment and retention of employees,” he said.
Most importantly, Dominguez stresses “successful negotiations rely on a sense of trust.”
“This,” he said referring to COIN, “would have a complete chilling effect on the process.”