Sheriff’s Deputies’ Union Unable To Get Traction In Contract Negotiations

In recent weeks SEBA, the union representing San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s deputies, has stepped up activity aimed at persuading top county officials to accede to its demands for compensation increases.
At the depth of the 2007-2013 recession, with the county’s revenues shrinking, raises in general were denied to the county’s workers across the board, and SEBA, an acronym for Safety Employees Benefit Association, made some $28 million in concessions on its previous collective bargaining agreement with the county. It is now SEBA’s contention that the county has made a fiscal recovery and that county officials remain intent on “needlessly stockpiling money” that more properly should be freed up for raises and benefit increases for the county’s sheriff’s deputies and district attorney’s investigators.
SEBA officials maintain the county is in a position to provide deputies with their first raise since 2011. San Bernardino County has proven itself uncommonly stingy, they contend, to the point that San Bernardino County’s deputies are paid on average 14-percent less than officers with surrounding agencies. In December, an impasse in the negotiations was declared as the union turned its nose up at what the county offered and the county refused to budge beyond what it had previously put forth.
This week, SEBA sought to ratchet the pressure up, with union officials accompanied by some 80 Safety Employees’ Benefit Association members and family members gathering outside the San Bernardino County Government Center Tuesday morning, an effort to upstage the board of supervisors, which was to hold one of its regularly scheduled meetings a little later that morning inside the building. The intent was to assert that the deputies are not being treated fairly by the county and show by their presence their determination not to be ignored.
If the union’s current leadership thought this would immediately bring the board of supervisors and the county’s chief executive officer, Greg Devereaux, the county’s lead negotiator, to heel, they miscalculated. By day’s end the impasse remained and there was no indication the county was ready to move toward the position held by the union.
Indeed county officials believe they have good cause to hold their ground. More than two decades ago, Chris Smith was elected president of SEBA. One of his first moves was to raise the monthly dues paid by union members to the hourly rate of the base pay of a deputy sheriff. This angered the rank and file, initially. But Smith and SEBA’s then-treasurer, Jim Erwin, did not let the money molder in a bank account. In short order they put it to work, seeking to strengthen the union.
Smith then went to work, persuading the sheriff and board of supervisors to up the pay of San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s deputies to levels closer to those provided to law enforcement officers in other jurisdictions.
After Smith left as president, he was succeeded by Nancy Smedley, who stayed in place only two years. Smedley’s relationship with the union’s rank and file deteriorated when she failed to hold her own in negotiations with Barbara Musselman, the county’s employee relations division chief and secured what union members felt was a substandard contract and allowed non-sworn custody specialists to serve as guards within the access points within the sheriff’s department jail system.
Jim Erwin succeeded Smedley. He escalated Smith’s political efforts, this time upping the contribution each deputy made to SEBA’s long dormant political action committee tenfold, from fifty cents per month to $5 per month, subsequently to $10 per month and then to $20 per month. In time, SEBA’s political action committee was transformed into the most formidable political vehicle in the county, into which was deposited more than $440,000 annually.
From that political action committee account the union began doling out contributions – substantial contributions – to the county’s elected officials with a command over both the fate and remuneration of deputies. Previously it had been the development community that infused the campaign war chests of those elected officials – members of the board of supervisors, the sheriff, the district attorney and the county treasurer – with the lion’s share of the cash used to purchase newspaper and radio advertising and create and mail out campaign brochures. Virtually overnight, SEBA was making contributions that rivaled or surpassed the money being provided to the county’s top politicians by builders and other members of the development community.
Erwin pressed for higher wages as part of the collective bargaining agreements arrived at with the county, using that as a litmus test for politicians. Those who supported the provision of higher deputy salaries were awarded with mega-contributions. Those who did not were targeted for removal from office. In 2000, First District Supervisor Kathy Davis fell victim when SEBA supplied a significant portion of the bankroll Bill Postmus employed in his effort to unseat her. Erwin turned to outside sources, including developmental and other business interests, for contributions to the SEBA political action committee. By that point, there was no doubt that SEBA had become the new political kid on the block. In 2002, Erwin convinced the SEBA board of directors that then-supervisor Jon Mikels should be targeted for removal, and SEBA endowed the Paul Biane campaign with a major portion of the funding used to oust Mikels.
At that time, a deputy who reached the age of 50 was eligible to retire and draw a pension that equaled his highest annual compensation times the number of years worked times two percent. Thus, a deputy who started with the department at the age of 25 who had stayed there for 25 years and promoted to the rank of sergeant making $100,000 per year would be eligible upon reaching his 50th birthday to receive an annual pension of $50,000 [$100,000 X 30 X .025] for the rest of his life.
Erwin moved to persuade the county to raise the multiplier in the pension formula from 2 percent to 3 percent, succeeding in doing so. Thereafter, a deputy’s pension was calculated by taking the deputy’s highest yearly salary times the number of years he worked with the department times 3 percent, such that the above-cited hypothetical retiree’s pension would be boosted to $75,000 per year.
Erwin left as SEBA president but was subsequently hired on as SEBA’s chief of administration before leaving to become assistant county assessor during a portion of Bill Postmus’s abbreviated tenure as county assessor. Erwin’s successor as SEBA president was Bill Abernathie. Abernathie was succeeded by Laren Leichliter, the current president. The economic downturn that began in 2007 and was accompanied by poor performance in the stock market led to pension funds, including public employee pension funds, missing their expected earnings goals for several years running. This has resulted in public agencies, including San Bernardino County, being required to make up the difference between expected and actual pension fund investment earnings in the county retirement system. This led to the county proposing, and SEBA ultimately accepting, that each new deputy hired after December 31, 2013 wait until the age of 55 to retire and receive a pension that is 2.7 percent, as opposed to 3 percent, of his or her top salary for each year worked with the department. Those in place prior to the January 1, 2014 deadline are entitled to use the 3 percent multiplier in their pension derivation formula. With the specter of pension funds continuing to miss their projected investment earnings targets which would result in governmental entities being continuously required to underwrite the cost of those investment shortcomings, San Bernardino County officials are reluctant to provide further raises to deputies, particularly since most non-safety county employees are entitled to retirement only upon reaching the age of 60 and have a per-year pension multiplier of 2 percent.
Over the last five years, SEBA presidents Abernathie and Leichliter accepted the parameters dictated by the county and the economy. More recently, dissatisfaction has set in among the rank and file represented by SEBA based on the consideration that deputies have gone five years without a raise. Last year, in an effort to pick up some leverage, Leichliter seized upon the opportunity that presented itself when the county’s former human resources director, Andrew Lamberto, found himself caught up in a prostitution solicitation scandal in Orange County. County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux had learned of the incident shortly after Lamberto’s arrest in March 2015, exacted some form of undisclosed administrative discipline against Lamberto and did not inform the board of supervisors. When Orange County’s processing of the case against Lamberto led to belated public discovery of Lamberto’s arrest and Devereaux’s role in keeping the matter under wraps, a firestorm of controversy ensued, during which Devereaux was roundly criticized from several quarters, and discussion of his possibly being terminated as county chief executive officer made the rounds. Leichliter and the union participated openly in that criticism of Devereaux and the effort to have him cashiered. Ultimately, however, the board of supervisors receded from relieving Devereaux of command over the governmental structure in the 2.1 million-population, 20,105 square mile county.
Erwin, the architect of the 3 percent at 50 pension formula for San Bernardino County’s deputies, said Leichliter and the union are floundering.
“The county has money to give them raises but the union and its president have done so much political damage to themselves they are not going to get what they want,” Erwin told the Sentinel. “The county is not legally required to give the union what it is asking for. There is nothing in the previous collective bargaining agreement requiring the county to meet their terms on any future agreements. It comes down to whether the union has enough good will built up with the board of supervisors or the ability to force them to reach a collective bargaining agreement with favorable terms. You have to have good relations with the board or have them fear the union to the point the supervisors give you what you ask for. In this case the union can’t do either. The best word to describe it is impotent. The county is holding out from SEBA despite having record monetary reserves.”
A combination of factors has put SEBA behind the eight ball, Erwin said, most of which pertain to the union’s leadership and tactics.
“They went after the chief executive officer,” Erwin said, referencing the gambit last fall relating to the Lamberto episode. “They tried to use the situation with the human resources director as a hammer to beat the chief executive officer up and as an issue to attack the board of supervisors. It didn’t work. They tried to take the chief executive officer’s job away while simultaneously embarrassing the board of supervisors. If you do that, you have to succeed, because if you don’t, he will come back and cut your head off. They didn’t get him fired. Now they have to negotiate with him. Greg Devereaux’s relationship with the board of supervisors is such that they listen to him and will back him in whatever position he takes.”
Erwin continued, “SEBA doesn’t have a friend on the board of supervisors. The only one they have a dialog with is James Ramos. Other than that, they have burned their bridges with [Robert] Lovingood, Janice Rutherford and Josie [Gonzales]. They have no relationship with anyone in management. It is a complete vacuum. No one has the foresight or vision to have a conversation with the right people.”
In addition, according to Erwin, the union has squandered its resources hiring individuals who have nothing to contribute toward reaching the union’s basic goals.
“They have hired as their political adviser the same political consultant, Dave Ellis, who works for the DA and the sheriff,” Erwin said. “What has that gotten them, other than a conflict of interest? They’ve hired a former deputy, Lolita Harper, as a full time public relations person. They have reconfigured their legal defense contract through PORAC [the Police Officers Research Association of California] to the top level of coverage so that once any kind of suspension or disciplinary action takes place, it is turned over to an attorney. But they still have two staff field representatives who used to handle the minor disciplinary cases. Each of those field representatives have nothing to do as a result but it still costs the union collectively $400,000 in salary and benefits to keep them in place, even though the need for them has been entirely eliminated. They are paying a whole lot of people who aren’t accomplishing anything.” Erwin said he “conservatively” estimate the money squandered in this way as “close to $600,000.”
Erwin said SEBA’s leadership has the union on a treadmill to nowhere. “The union, basically, is accomplishing nothing,” he said. “I see they held a protest in front of the county administration building in advance of this week’s board of supervisors meeting with their spokeswoman badmouthing the county and I’m left scratching my head.”
He said the union leadership is conflicted.
“Laren Leichliter wants to be promoted,” Erwin said. “He wants to be liked by sheriff’s management. But you can’t be president of the union representing the rank and file, and be in bed with the sheriff and the county at the same time. Those are incompatible goals. If you play that game, the union is going to suffer in the end. Right now they have hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank but they don’t know how, or are afraid, to use it. It would appear that the union president wants to be a deal-maker and backscratcher so he can get promoted. There has been a pattern in this county of the union heads getting too close to management. That is not their role.” The union president needs to have no regard for his own promotional viability within the organization to be truly effective, Erwin said.
“When I was president, I pushed to have the MOU [memorandum of understanding, i.e., the labor contract between the county and the deputies] enforced,” he said. “We filed grievances. We nurtured relationships with the board of supervisors. We would listen to what the county administration said and then talk with members of the board of supervisors to verify what we were being told. If it turned out we were being lied to, there would be political and legal ramifications. I’d send a letter threatening a lawsuit if the county or the department did not resolve the issue within ten days. I had lawsuits filed. At one time, we had seven lawsuits going at once. We did everything that could be done under the law or politically. On more than one occasion, I instructed everyone in the transportation unit to start doing everything by the book, having the bus drivers [carrying prisoners to court appearances] obeying the speed limit, following all of the rules. What I knew is that the courts just won’t run on time if you go absolutely by policy. We essentially shut the courts down. I made my point.” The union, Erwin said, “Basically doesn’t have the wherewithal or courage to do that.”
This has left the union “powerless to do anything about all of these problems they are facing,” Erwin said. “They are spending money on field representatives and a political consultant, but the rank and file, in terms of wages and benefits, is back to where we started 20 years ago. They need to explain that. Total compensation has deteriorated, when you compare it to other law enforcement agencies, to what it was 10 years ago.”
Devereaux took Leichliter’s measure while watching him angling for a promotion, Erwin said. After Leichleiter misplayed the Lamberto situation, he put the union in a no-win situation, Erwin said. And the circumstance at this point defies repair, he said. “With the current mix of players, I don’t see how it can get resolved,” he said. “There is a bad dynamic here. And this was poisoned not by the county, but by the union. This is the worst situation since before I became president almost 20 years ago. Whatever gains we made have for the most part been unwound. It appears there is no one at the union now who has the skill to get things back on track. There has been this steady and continuous deterioration between the board of supervisors and the union the last two to three years. They’ve lost their way. There is no strategy to right the ship. It is clearly a tragedy to the rank and file”
Even if Devereaux softens up more than it is prudent to think he will, Erwin said, the union will continue to fight the law of diminishing returns, since the 3 percent raises for three years which the union is at this point willing to accept but which the county will not provide would not come close to putting a dent in bringing the pay rate up to what it should be. “That three percent annually would not bring them up to par with salary alone,” Erwin said “They are double digits below where they should be.”
Moreover, Erwin said, the county has seized the high moral ground to bolster its position of strength in the negotiating process. The FBI has opened up several investigations into deputies’ use of excessive force, including one into the abusive treatment of inmates at the West Valley Detention Center, where at least four employees were “walked off” the jail grounds by federal agents after the investigation began and six deputies have been terminated as a consequence of the inquiries. Seven lawsuits by inmates and former inmates at West Valley or their families have been filed against the department and county over the situation there as well. Noting that the county has come to an accommodation with all of the bargaining units representing county employees over the last two years except SEBA, Erwin said the county has now taken up the position that it cannot afford to increase deputies salaries because of the substantial payouts the county anticipates it will need to make to settle those lawsuits.
“The department is losing deputies due to attrition and they are not hiring at a rate to make up for that,” Erwin said, noting this has created a vicious cycle because the resulting challenge of maintaining professionalism in a circumstance where the department is understaffed “creates disciplinary problems. It will take ten years to recover from the institutional damage.”
Attempts to reach Leichliter were unsuccessful.

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