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Finding: Island County wrong to withhold documents

A hearing examiner with the state Public Employment Relations Commission ruled this week that Island County officials violated state law by withholding budget documents and other records sought by the deputy’s sheriff’s labor union.

The county was ordered to produce the records and was cited with an “unfair labor practice” finding, according to a statement from Guild attorney Jim Cline.

Deputy Darren Crownover, Guild president, said county officials will have to admit the unfair labor practice in a statement read into the record during a county commissioners’ hearing, as well as post statements in the workplace admitting to the violation.

The ruling represents another chapter in the increasingly contentious contract negotiations between the deputies and the county.

The deputies’ contract expired at the end of 2008 and is heading towards arbitration, though a hearing was cancelled because of the dispute over budget documents.

County officials can appeal the hearing examiner’s decision, but Crownover said he is hoping they won’t so arbitration can move forward.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson said a decision about whether to appeal hasn’t been made. She defends the county’s position, saying there was miscommunication about what the Guild wanted in its broad public records request.

“I have a different interpretation of the facts than they do,” she said, referring to Guild leaders.

“I respect their viewpoint, but I feel some of the personal attacks of our employees are unfair, unfounded and uncalled for.”

In its latest press release, the Guild is critical of Budget Director Elaine Marlow, claiming the hearing examiner called Marlow’s testimony “contradictory,” “unreliable” and “not credible.”

Marlow did not return a call for comment by press time.

In October, the Guild release a statement saying county officials don’t understand their own budget and demanded that the county retain an outside budget expert before any labor negotiations continue. The Guild also filed a public records lawsuit, which is pending in Snohomish County Superior Court.

The county commissioners responded to the guild’s statement, written by Cline, with a statement to the Whidbey News-Times.

“The claims made in Mr. Cline’s letter are untrue, distorted, or greatly exaggerated. His letter creates an inaccurate public perception of the status of the negotiations, rather than a serious proposal to the county,” the commissioners said in their response.

At the heart of the matter is the county’s finances — whether it can afford to pay the deputies salaries and benefits similar to those in comparable counties. The Guild argues that county officials’ claim of financial hardship is untrue given the large reserve fund.

The Guild maintains the county was hiding that fact — through deception or incompetence — that the reserve fund was at 45 percent, while the norm is around 20 percent.

Since budget documents weren’t forthcoming from the county, Crownover said, the Guild hired an expert to look at financial information from state sources. The expert came to the realization about the size of the reserve.

Not long afterward, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson made the same realization.

She convinced fellow commissioners and law-and-justice officials to nix a proposal to ask voters to raise property taxes to increase funding for the sheriff’s office and other law-and-justice offices.

Instead, she said, the county should use some of its reserve to replace some of the cuts.

Next year, the sheriff’s office will get four new deputies and one corrections deputy.

In August, the commissioners reported that the reserve fund was at $9 million, which is 41 percent of the county’s $22-million operating budget.

Revenues outpaced expenditures by $1.6 million in 2011, $1.9 million in 2012 and this year’s projection are for a minimum of $1.5 million.

Johnson never claimed anyone was hiding the information about the reserve fund, but said she just didn’t ask the right questions.

She said she hopes to work on how budget information is presented in the future so that the fund balance and reserves are clearer.

 

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