Island County cited for unlawful labor practices

A hearing examiner with the state Public Employment Relations Commission ruled this week that Island County officials violated state law by withholding budget documents and other records sought by the deputy sheriff’s labor union.

The county was ordered to produce the records and was cited with an “unfair labor practice” finding, according to a statement from guild attorney Jim Cline.

Deputy Darren Crownover, the guild president, said county officials will have to admit the unfair labor practice in a statement read into the record during a county commissioners hearing and post statements in the workplace also admitting to the violation.

The ruling represents yet another chapter in the increasingly bitter contract negotiations between the deputies and the county. The deputies’ contract expired at the end of 2008 and is heading towards arbitration, though a hearing had to be cancelled due to the dispute over budget documents.

County officials can appeal the decision, but Crownover hopes they won’t so arbitration can move forward.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson said the decision about a possible appeal hasn’t been made. She defends the county’s position, saying there was miscommunication about what the guild wanted in its broad public records request.

“I have a different interpretation of the facts than they do,” she said, referring to guild leaders. “I respect their viewpoint, but I feel some of the personal attacks of our employees are unfair, unfounded and uncalled for.”

The guild’s latest press release is critical of Budget Director Elaine Marlow; it claims that the hearing examiner called her testimony “contradictory,” “unreliable” and “not credible.”

Marlow did not immediately return a call for comment.

In October, the Island County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild released a statement saying that county officials don’t understand their own budget and demanded that the county retain an outside budget expert before any labor negotiations continue. The guild also filed a public records lawsuit which is pending in Snohomish County Superior Court.

The county commissioners responded to the guild’s statement, written by Cline, with a statement to the South Whidbey Record.

“The claims made in Mr. Cline’s letter are untrue, distorted, or greatly exaggerated. His letter creates an inaccurate public perception of the status of the negotiations, rather than a serious proposal to the county,” the commissioners’ release states.

At the heart of the matter are the county’s finances and whether it can afford to pay the deputies salaries and benefits similar to comparable counties. The guild argued that county officials’ claim of financial hardship was untrue given the large reserve fund.

The guild claimed that the county was hiding the fact — through deception or incompetence — that the reserve fund was at 45 percent, while the norm is around 20 percent.

Since budget documents weren’t forthcoming from the county, Crownover said, the guild hired an expert to look at financial information from state sources. The expert came to the realization about the size of the reserve.

Not long afterward, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson made the same realization. She convinced fellow commissioners and law-and-justice officials to nix a proposal to ask voters to raise property taxes to increase funding to the sheriff’s office and other law-and-justice offices.

Instead, she said, the county should use some of the large reserve to replace some of the cuts. Next year, the sheriff’s office will get four new deputies and one corrections deputy.

In August, the commissioners reported that the reserve fund was at $9 million, which is 41 percent of the county’s $22-million operating budget. Revenues outpaced expenditures by $1.6 million in 2011, $1.9 million in 2012 and this year’s projection is for a minimum of $1.5 million.

Johnson never claimed anyone was hiding the information about the reserve fund, but said she just didn’t ask the right questions. She said she hopes to work on how budget information is presented in the future, so that the fund balance and reserves are clearer.


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