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Fasano likes idea of deputies' union

State Rep. Mike Fasano is considering filing a bill to allow Pasco County sheriff's deputies to form a union.

In a letter sent earlier this month to Sheriff Lee Cannon, the New Port Richey Republican said a number of deputies had "stated their desire to be allowed collective bargaining via membership in the Police Benevolent Association."

Fasano, who received the association's endorsement and $1,500 in contributions during his last campaign, said deputies need better job protection due to the political nature of their boss' job.

"I'd like to make sure that these deputies are protected if they decide not to support a sheriff in an election, or they decide to support someone else."

But union opponents _ among them Cannon and the Florida Sheriffs' Association _ say Pasco's deputies already have adequate job protection, thanks to a state law that prohibits political firings and a county ordinance that specifies when and how a deputy can be disciplined.

Unions, opponents say, simply make it more difficult to fire bad cops.

"In Jacksonville, the sheriff got elected, and he found some deputies lied to get search warrants for people's homes," said Maury Kolchakian, chief lobbyist for the Florida Sheriffs' Association. "He wanted to fire the guys, but the union said, "No _ you have to give them a 30-day suspension.' "

That's something Harold Sample, Cannon's executive assistant, does not want to see happen here.

"There are more protections for a law enforcement officer than any other government employee," Sample said. "And yet these are folks that have to be held to a higher standard because they've got the ability to deprive people of their rights and take people's lives."

Fasano said a union wouldn't mean the sheriff could not fire truly bad law enforcement officers. But he said the county's current disciplinary appeals board was inadequate because the sheriff could overrule it.

Campaigning for re-election last year, Fasano railed against tenure rules that make it difficult to fire "clearly incompetent" teachers. He pointed out that his opponent at the time, sheriff's Deputy Brian Prescott, had taken "thousands of dollars from educational unions."

Prescott said Wednesday that Fasano's support for police unions represented a political about-face.

"He wasn't a union fan then, and he isn't a union fan now," Prescott said. "He's paying off a political debt owed to the Police Benevolent Association for supporting him."

Not so, Fasano insisted.

"They supported me with a couple of checks," Fasano said "but I can assure you it doesn't matter to me if deputies decide to go with the PBA or the Florida Order of Police (union)."

Just five of Florida's 67 counties have unionized sheriff's offices: Escambia, Dade, Duval, Volusia and Broward. That's because in order to organize, deputies need an act of the Florida Legislature.

The reason? The courts have found that unlike most public employees, deputies are appointed and therefore not automatically entitled to form collective bargaining units.

Proponents argue that a union could help break the budget stalemate between the Sheriff's Office and the County Commission, leading to better pay and benefits for deputies and improved working conditions.

"What happens in a lot of counties is that the Police Benevolent Association and the sheriff work together," said David Murrell, the executive director of the association. "We have PAC funds, and we get involved in elections, so hopefully we bring the sheriff a little more muscle."

But Sgt. Charles Calhoun, a sheriff's deputy and the president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge, isn't so sure. Though the Fraternal Order of Police have unionized police departments elsewhere, Calhoun pointed to the inability of the Teamsters to win better pay for the county's firefighters and paramedics as evidence that unions aren't always effective.

"Judging by the County Commission and the county administrator that we have, I don't think it would do any good," Calhoun said. "When you have a sheriff that wants to fight for you, that's willing to go against the County Commission like ours is, he's basically already doing what a union would do."

Sample agreed.

"It makes no sense for us to fall way behind in terms of wages because an officer can leave here, go to Tampa, work half the number of cases and make $6,000 more," Sample said. "We want to be competitive in every way we can."

Fasano said he simply wants to give deputies the choice. He sent Cannon the letter to see what he thought of the idea.

"We didn't want to do anything without his opinion or blessing or comment on it," Fasano said Wednesday. "If the sheriff sends me a letter back saying he's against it, with good reasons to be against it, then I probably would respect his opinion.