Orange County supervisors on Tuesday abruptly reversed course on plans to suspend a labor negotiations ordinance that was largely invalidated by a judge, and in doing so drew fire from the leader of the county's main public employees union.
Supervisors were originally scheduled to vote earlier this month on suspending their Civic Openness in Negotiations ordinance, or COIN, after County Counsel Leon Page warned that the county could face further legal liability by keeping it in place.
Page's warning was in response to a July ruling by a judge with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board that key parts of COIN had to be repealed because supervisors illegally imposed the requirements without giving workers a chance to negotiate first. The county has appealed the ruling.
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.
Supporters say it gives residents a better chance to weigh in on proposed labor agreements and helps prevent labor costs from escalating due to benefit increases.
Labor groups, meanwhile, argue that it unfairly singles out employees but not private contractors who finance the supervisors’ political campaigns and account for more than half of the county’s spending. And they say COIN’s passage last year violated requirements to meet and confer with employees under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act.
Leading up to Tuesday's meeting it was unclear whether supervisors would take the advice of their top attorney and vote to suspend the ordinance. The vote earlier this month was delayed until Tuesday. But then they emerged from closed session Tuesday to delete the item, without rescheduling it or offering an explanation.
Supervisors often postpone decisions when they need more time to form a majority to get it approved, and typically explain their reasoning. But by deleting the COIN item entirely, they signaled that the proposed suspension is dead.
The move infuriated Jennifer Muir, the general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, who said supervisors had promised to suspend COIN so negotiations can begin for thousands of county workers whose labor contract expired in June.
“The Board of Supervisors has not only ignored a judge’s ruling, not only ignored their own County Counsel’s advice, not only ignored and gone back on their word during bargaining that they were going to suspend COIN, but they today trampled over the rights of every single county employee in this county to stand together and bargain with the county," Muir said after the meeting.
"And here are people who talk a lot about justice and honesty and transparency just walking over the rights of the county’s employees. It’s absolutely disgusting.”
None of the five supervisors returned messages from Voice of OC seeking a response to Muir’s comments and an explanation of Tuesday’s decision.
And beyond drawing the ire of the union, supervisors might have violated the law by making decisions on the COIN ordinance behind closed doors.
Both times the item came up for a vote – Aug. 4 and Tuesday – supervisors emerged from closed session to either delay or delete the item with little or no explanation.
At the earlier meeting, supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer said he and his colleagues would be discussing an item in closed session “that may or may not influence” their decision on suspending COIN. After the closed session, he called for a delay to the COIN suspension and simply said that supervisors “need further analysis.” There was no other public discussion of the item.
Open government expert Terry Francke of Californians Aware said the state's open meetings law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, requires that such a policy debate should play out in public.
“I think it’s very dubious,” Francke said of the supervisors’ actions. “The closed sessions for negotiations are intended to allow the supervisors to react to changes or developments in collective bargaining with their employee unions. And I’m not sure how an agenda item like that comes into play.”
“If it could be shown that in effect the supervisors reached an agreement to not do something, then that could be interpreted as action taken and they could be required to put that back on the agenda and reconsider it in open session,” he added.
Meanwhile, the supervisors’ attorney was emphatic in his recommendation to suspend COIN, saying it needed to be done promptly to avoid further legal exposure for taxpayers.
“Suspension of the Ordinance’s provisions is a matter of urgency,” Page wrote in his staff report for the Aug. 4 meeting.
“In order to avoid claims of a failure to negotiate promptly upon request…staff recommends that the Board adopt the proposed urgency ordinance suspending operation of COIN until all related litigation and appeals concerning the validity of the COIN have been exhausted. This will facilitate the commencement of labor negotiations while preserving the County’s legal position regarding this matter.”
Asked whether OCEA will be taking legal action over Tuesday’s move, Muir said the union will be responding swiftly in the coming days.
“The Board of Supervisors has demonstrated over and over again throughout the years that they will spend untold amounts of taxpayer money to take actions that advance their own personal political agendas, but that they have been repeatedly told are not legal. And they did that again today,” Muir said.