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2 Tough Negotiators Face Off in County-Deputy Sheriffs Labor Dispute : Portraits of Lead Adversaries in Deputy Sheriff-County Labor Dispute : County's Man Anxious to Conclude Talks So He Can Start His New Job

September 28, 1987|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times County Bureau Chief

For John Sibley, the good news is that once he finishes negotiating new union contracts for Orange County, he can work full time on his new county job, which will put him a step closer to his goal of someday managing a city or county.

The bad news is that the union contracts show no signs of being wrapped up anytime soon. Worse, the dreaded word "strike" is being murmured by some.

Sibley is Orange County's director of employee relations, a job he has held since 1980. That makes him the county's chief labor negotiator.

"For my tenure, the almost eight years, we've had extremely good labor relations, labor peace," Sibley said. "I think that's the result of having a Board of Supervisors that is very progressive, that realizes the value of a good work force."

Little more than a decade ago, county workers had only one union--the Orange County Employees Assn. Now there are nine, and eight of them are negotiating new contracts this year.

Preparations for the bargaining and actual negotiations have been going on for seven months, Sibley said.

"When you're going through negotiations, you think, 'Is it ever going to end?' And this year I really think, 'Is it ever going to end?' "

After so many months of on-again, off-again talks, the process "is starting to wear on people. It takes an emotional toll."

On Sibley, too? "At times," he said, smiling.

Quick to laugh and quick with a joke--when he's not negotiating, that is--Sibley came to his county job after working as assistant city manager in Tustin. He took that post after earning a political science degree from Cal Poly Pomona and a master's degree in public administration from Cal State Fullerton.

He took labor relations classes as part of the course work for his master's degree, and he finds his background as a debater in high school and a public speaker in college to have been invaluable experiences.

"The ability to represent a position is key in negotiations," he said, reflecting the advice handed down by high school coaches to generations of debaters.

"One of the highlights of employee relations is that point where you reach an agreement," Sibley said. "You've gone through the process, you've spent literally hundreds of hours at the bargaining table negotiating, you have exchanges--some of them less pleasant than others.

"You're at the point where the parties reach agreement, (and) it's kind of like . . . everything is forgotten and you shake hands and you feel really great.

"You've done it. You've accomplished what you set out to do. You've got a product that represents an awful lot of work, an awful lot of time."

At age 41, when many men find their bodies suggesting that they take it a bit easier, Sibley finds himself yearning for winter, when the contract talks have ebbed and the snow has fallen on the ski slopes.

"I skied 22 years ago and then I took a 20-year break," he recalled.

Why the hiatus? Well, 22 years ago, "I broke my leg in three places," he said.

His 10-year-old son "loves to ski, my wife loves to ski," he said. "I try following them down the mountain."

Sibley knows when to cut his losses, though.

While coaching his sons' soccer teams--his older sons are now 19 and 16--he and some other father-coaches "decided that we wanted to play some." So for six years, until he was 38, Sibley played in a YMCA-sponsored league.

"It was a lot of fun for a lot of years," he said. "I played goalie, and the last year . . . the league was getting very competitive. I broke two fingers, and I got kicked in the mouth one day and had my mouth all torn up.

"These games were on Sunday, and I had to go to work on Monday mornings and it was getting a little too aggressive. So it was time to hang up the soccer cleats and stick to tennis and racquetball and other sports where you run into walls, but people aren't going to run into you usually."

After this year's contract negotiations are wrapped up, Sibley, who makes about $70,000 a year, will take over a new role, directing the preparation of the county budget. Trained as a computer operator during his four-year Air Force stint, Sibley said he wants to computerize more of the budget process.

The new job, which came into existence at the end of August, will help him progress toward his target, Sibley said: "My goal has always been to be a city manager or county administrative officer."

The man who is now Orange County's chief administrative officer and Sibley's boss, Larry Parrish, said Sibley "is a very promising manager . . . a real professional."

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