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Ventura County

Supervisors Urged to End Stalemate

Labor: County sheriff says consequences of further delay on contract for deputies could be disastrous.


Saying public safety is on the line if negotiations fail, Ventura County's top law enforcement officials urged the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to end a labor stalemate with sheriff's deputies.

Tension is rising among 850 deputies and district attorney's investigators who have been without a contract for 11 months, Sheriff Bob Brooks told supervisors and a crowded room of off-duty deputies during the board's weekly meeting.

Union leaders announced last week that they were considering several options, including sickouts and possibly a strike.

"The possibility of a breakdown in public safety labor relations during a normal time would be devastating," Brooks said. "When we are dealing with the real threat of terrorism, it is unthinkable."

Brooks was joined by Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, who told supervisors there is room for compromise on disputed issues. Bradbury suggested that the board appoint a citizens committee to hear both sides and make recommendations.

"This may provide a way to eliminate any mistrust and resolve this issue in such a way as to satisfy all interests," Bradbury said.

But a majority of supervisors, commenting after the meeting, said they would turn to that option only as a last resort.

"It's too early for that," said Supervisor Frank Schillo. "We're not at impasse and we don't need to delegate our responsibility to anyone else."

As supervisors met, county negotiators and union leaders went behind closed doors in the early afternoon for the fourth bargaining session in a month.

The Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs' Assn. is asking for guaranteed wage increases whenever pay for law enforcement in neighboring counties and cities goes up. County officials have said they are willing to offer raises, but don't want them tied to an automatic formula.

Senior sheriff's deputies are paid a base salary of $64,542.

The biggest sticking point is the deputies' demand for an expansion of their pension benefit.

If their plan is approved, a 55-year-old deputy would be able to retire after a 30-year career and receive a pension check that equals 122% of his or her active-duty pay. Currently, the same deputy would qualify for a check equaling 106% of base pay.

Union leaders say the improved pension is quickly becoming the industry standard. If Ventura County wants to attract and keep quality deputies it must offer the same, said union President Glen Kitzmann.

"A fair contract does not ignore a benefit that more than 160 law enforcement agencies already have," Kitzmann told supervisors Tuesday.

County leaders say the current retirement package is already similar to what other agencies are offering. But the union disputes that, accusing the county of distorting figures to bolster its argument.

The two sides also disagree on the county's ability to finance the estimated $53-million one-time cost of providing the pension improvements. The complexity of the issue is one reason negotiations have dragged on, Supervisor Steve Bennett said.

"There is no interest in inflaming the negotiations," Bennett told the packed room. "Believe me, we don't go into closed session and say, 'Let's see, how can we upset the deputies some more?' "

Supervisor Kathy Long assured deputies that the board intends to settle the contract as quickly as possible.

"There is anxiety in the community," she said. "I fully anticipate we will get this addressed."

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