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Leader of Sheriff's Deputies Union in Bitter Contract Fight

Ventura County: Members trust in his persistence, but critics say he lacks diplomacy.

November 01, 2001|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Glen Kitzmann says he'd rather spend his time off tending his garden or watching NASCAR races.

But those diversions are on hold for the 44-year-old district attorney's investigator who is working a second shift these days as president of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs' Assn.

Today Kitzmann will sit down with county government negotiators to resume his 10-month push for a new pay-and-benefits package for 830 sheriff's deputies and investigators. It's a battle turned so bitter that Kitzmann has vowed that the union will campaign to unseat any supervisor who does not support its pay demands.

That's no idle threat in law-and-order Ventura County, where politicians compete for the endorsement of law enforcement. Kitzmann has even suggested that sheriff's deputies could take the risky, and possibly illegal, step of walking off the job if a contract is not approved soon.

Union members say Kitzmann, a plain-spoken former patrol officer who lives in Ventura County, has done a good job representing them in the face of a stubborn government. He is so well-liked among the union rank and file that he was just reelected to a second two-year term as president without opposition.

"We trust him to do what we think is right, to lead us through these times," said Tracy Towner, another investigator in the district attorney's office. "A lot of members feel they are just not being treated right."

But critics say Kitzmann has done more harm than good in his first go-round as the union's chief spokesman and negotiator. Kitzmann has been overly combative and even disrespectful toward the Board of Supervisors, which has final say on any labor agreement, critics contend.

He may be passionate and hard-working, they say, but he needs to learn that diplomacy and negotiation are not a clear-cut world of yes and no.

"It's a little too much confrontation, which indicates a lack of experience," said John Flynn, a 25-year county supervisor. "We've worked with a lot of unions before and seen a lot of things. But there have been some real sophomoric activities and confrontations going on."

In June, Kitzmann filled the supervisors' meeting room with 150 deputies and their families and told the board that the county's contract offer was "a personal insult to every one of us."

That was followed by a $60,000 media campaign that criticized supervisors in newspaper and radio ads for not approving pay demands.

That tactic appeared to backfire, however, when supervisors reported that residents were instead urging them to hold steady in the labor battle.

Kitzmann defends the hardball campaign as necessary to help deputies maintain average pay and benefits.

They earn between $41,939 and $58,552 annually, depending on experience.

Contract talks stalled in May over the union's demand for a new retirement benefit that would entitle a 50-year-old deputy to receive a pension check that equals roughly 75% of active pay after 25 years of service.

The county offered the benefit for new employees but said it cannot afford the $44-million one-time cost of providing it for those already on the payroll.

County negotiators also offered a 4% yearly pay hike, but deputies want an open-ended guarantee that salaries will rise whenever pay for law enforcement in nearby cities and counties goes up.

Kitzmann said the expanded retirement pay package is quickly becoming the standard for law enforcement across California, and that Ventura County won't be able to retain quality officers if it does not keep pace.

If supervisors think he's been in their face, well, that's just tough, he said.

"We tried being diplomatic at the beginning, by meeting with them and making public statements to them," Kitzmann said. "We just keep being ignored. So sometimes you have to increase the tone to get their attention."

Underneath the tough talk is a hard-working family man who takes his responsibility as the union's leader seriously, according to friends. Since taking the top spot in 1999, Kitzmann has doggedly pursued his duties in a calm and focused way, they say.

His finish-the-task credo prompted him to run for a second term as the union's president, even though he is frustrated by the long months with no progress, said his wife of 22 years, Lori.

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