Both sides in a labor dispute between county administrators and 300 county lawyers say they want to avoid a strike--and the chaos it could bring to already jammed courts.
But by the end of last week, there was little hint of progress in salary talks for deputy prosecutors, public defenders and county counsel, whose contract expired at 5 p.m. Friday.
On Thursday night, the lawyers' association rejected the last offer, 255 to 0.
For the first time since the Orange County Attorneys Assn. staged a sickout 11 years ago, county lawyers are working without a contract.
While both sides deny animosity, there is a growing note of bitterness in their public comments.
"Since I first became a city council member and in my time on the board . . . I have never seen a less professional organization to deal with," Supervisor Roger R. Stanton angrily said about the lawyers' group.
At the center of the debate is the association's contention that the county's pay for its its legal staff is producing an exodus of experience and talent that has reached crisis proportions. In the last two years, according to figures compiled by the association, 100 of the 300 lawyers employed by the county have left, in most cases for higher-paying jobs in other counties or in the private sector as defense lawyers.
The Orange County district attorney's office has lost 51 of its 143 deputies, according to the association's statistics.
"We feel it is more effective to have an office of career prosecutors than an office of people that come here to get a year or two of training and then join the other side," said Christopher J. Evans, a deputy prosecutor and spokesman for the association.
Salaries for county lawyers range from about $35,000 a year for the least-experienced lawyers to $72,000 for the most senior deputies. The county has refused to discuss its last salary offer, but lawyers in the bargaining unit have said that the proposed increases range from 3.5% to 13.5%, to be spread over the next two years, with the largest raises going to those at the lower end of the pay scale.
The association first asked for a raise to bring members more in line with Los Angeles County, which pays its senior deputies $94,000 a year. County lawyers say they have since lowered their request but decline to specify.
The county's offer, Evans said, would do little to stem the attrition within the county's legal staff: "We could not stand a similar attrition rate during this contract period. It would be difficult to do the job the taxpayers and the citizens want us to do to protect them from crime."
County negotiators dismiss such warnings as hyperbole.
David M. Carlaw, chief of county employee relations, estimated the turnover rate among county lawyers last year at 14%, which he said was just slightly higher than the countywide average of 10%. Carlaw said the association's numbers are higher because they include those who have been promoted to other jobs and those hired temporarily, who then left.
"They're pretty close" to the countywide attrition rate, Carlaw said. "A certain amount of turnover is to be expected in any organization."
Evans insists that his association's figures are correct. As for those who have left after being hired for a temporary assignment, Evans said many permanent attorneys are classified as temporary so that the county does not have to pay them benefits.
"They don't just come and go like grape (pickers)," Evans said. "It's not like we expect a lot of drunk drivers one year, so we hire some migrant D.A.s."
Recent court decisions have raised questions about whether county prosecutors and public defenders could legally strike. And both sides dismiss the possibility of a strike as remote.
County deputy prosecutors and public defenders staged a sickout for several days in July, 1979. It had little effect on criminal cases, which were handled by management personnel, but it caused delays in the civil courts.
Evans said that his association started an "impasse resolution account" about a month ago but that it is a misnomer to call it a strike fund. The money has been used to pay the mailing and printing costs of keeping members informed of the status of talks and the legal fees of the attorneys representing the association at the bargaining table.
The money could be used, Evans conceded, to help members who participate in a future job action. "We have no immediate plans for a strike," Evans said. "We're not going to predict the future. We're hopeful and confident a settlement can be worked out."