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L.A. County labor commissioners resign over 'coercive' contract

All three members of the board that settles labor disputes with county quit, saying the contract with the hearing officers who advise them never had panel's input.

September 13, 2013|By Abby Sewell

All three members of a board that settles labor disputes for Los Angeles County government's 100,000 employees resigned unexpectedly this week, citing concerns that the agency's independence is being eroded.

The action by the members of the Employee Relations Commission comes in the midst of contentious labor negotiations between county government and its largest employees union.

The commissioners said their resignation was sparked by a recent change in the county's contract with hearing officers who listen to labor grievances and recommend how the commission should decide them.

The commissioners objected to a provision in the contract that requires hearing officers to indemnify the county. They said it would potentially allow the county to sue an officer who makes a recommendation that management disagrees with, if the commission's decision is later overturned in court.

The contract also gives the executive officer for the Board of Supervisors authority to dock a hearing officer's pay if she finds deficiencies in the officer's performance.

In their resignation letter, the commissioners called the contract "intimidating and coercive" and said the changes were made "without input from or consultation with" them.

"I've been in this business for 40 years," said R. Douglas Collins, one of the three commissioners who stepped down. "I'm very, very familiar with this business from top to bottom, and I've never, ever seen anything like this."

Patrick Ogawa, chief deputy at the supervisors' executive office, said in a statement that the county had followed its "standard contracting process" in drafting the new agreement and that clauses the commissioners objected to — including the indemnification requirement — had not changed from the prior contract.

Ogawa said administrators "are perplexed" that the commissioners say they are leaving "due to the lack of notification and involvement" in the hearing officer contracts. "Over the course of the last year … this issue has been discussed with the [commissioners] at a number of their meetings."

A draft version of the new hearing officer contract was released in February, and supervisors approved the document in June.

Collins said the commissioners had indeed been aware that the new contract was in the works and had raised concerns about similar provisions that were put in place for hearing officers with the county's separate civil service commission.

But he said he had not seen the final contract or known that it had been approved until he asked for a copy at the end of August, after a similar issue came up in the city of Los Angeles, where Collins also serves on a labor relations board.

Najeeb Khoury, attorney for Service Employees International Union Local 721, said there are "serious questions" about what will happen if the union's ongoing negotiations with the county reach an impasse and there are no employee relations commissioners in place. SEIU's contract expires at the end of the month, and the two sides appear unlikely to reach an agreement before then.

The Coalition of County Unions, composed of other county labor groups, urged the Board of Supervisors to work with labor to "identify and appoint three new neutral commissioners and maintain labor peace."

The resignations also come as the county separately considers changing the way the supervisors appoint commission members. Currently, all three commissioners are selected from a list jointly developed by labor and management. Under the new system, one seat would be nominated by labor, one by management, and one would come from a "neutral" list approved by both.

County Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka said in a staff report that the current system "eliminates otherwise highly qualified candidates perceived as being too favorable to either management or labor."

The change is opposed by the county's unions, which say it could upset the neutrality of the process, but commissioners did not cite that measure as a reason for stepping down.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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