A state agency has ruled that top Orange County officials violated labor laws last year by imposing new requirements on employee negotiations, without giving unions a chance to negotiate about the changes ahead of time.

In a proposed decision by the state’s Public Employment Relations Board, the county was determined to have violated state law when supervisors passed the Civic Openness in Negotiations ordinance, known as COIN.

“The County is found to have adopted a proposed ordinance, COIN, without prior notice to [the Orange County Employees Association], [Orange County Attorneys Association], and [International Union of Operating Engineers Local 501], and affording them an opportunity to meet and confer over the decision or effects of the proposed ordinance. Such a violation constitutes an unlawful unilateral change and a refusal to bargain in good faith,” states the June 16 ruling by Chief Administrative Law Judge Shawn B. Cloughesy.

If the ruling stands, the county would have to repeal four key sections of COIN, including public reporting of offers and counteroffers, disclosure of what took place during labor negotiation sessions, a 30-day non-negotiations period before supervisors consider opening proposals to labor groups.

The county would also have to put up notices for 30 days telling employees the county broke the law and is required to meet and confer with unions before making changes that affect their representation.  The notices would also have to be emailed to county employees.

(Click here to read the proposed ruling.)

The county has until next week to appeal the ruling to the full labor board.

County spokeswoman Jean Pasco declined to comment on the ruling, other than to note that supervisors took no reportable action on the litigation during their closed session last week.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Employees Association, which represents two-thirds of the county workforce, applauded the ruling.

“We’re really happy that the administrative law judge recognized and upheld worker rights in his proposed decision,” said Jennifer Muir, the union’s assistant general manager.

Muir went on to say it shows the need to apply transparency across the board at the county, not just to employee contracts. She pointed to recent cost overruns and network outages stemming from the county’s contract with Xerox Corp.

“There’s just example after example after example about how that type of public scrutiny on those private contracts is just critical for the public,” she said.

Among other things, COIN requires public disclosure of offers and counter-offers on labor contracts, a more detailed financial analysis of proposed agreements and the posting of proposed agreements 30 days in advance of voting on their approval.

It was brought forward to the county last year by then-Supervisor John Moorlach, who argued that it will give residents a better chance to weigh in on proposed labor agreements.

Supporters, such as the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County, also suggested the ordinance would help prevent labor costs from escalating due to benefit increases.

Labor groups, meanwhile, argued that COIN triggers a requirement to meet and confer with employees under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, which mandates certain types of communication between government agencies and employee groups regarding labor negotiations.

They also criticized supervisors for not having the ordinance cover all government contracting, especially with private companies that finance the supervisors’ political campaigns and account for more than half of the county’s spending.

In reaction to COIN, OCEA is spearheading state legislation that would require any local government that implements COIN to also follow a similar process for contracts with private vendors over $50,000.

That legislation, known as CRONEY, was passed by the Senate in May and was approved by the Assembly’s local government committee on Wednesday.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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