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Some are surprised by union idea

State Rep. Debra Prewitt did a double-take when she picked up her morning newspaper and saw that Rep. Mike Fasano, a Republican, thought a union for sheriff's deputies might be a good idea.

"I think Mike got up on the wrong side of the bed," said Prewitt, a Democrat. "That's not exactly a Republican idea _ that would be like me flipping on a major Democratic principle."

That's not to say Prewitt doesn't like Fasano's idea. She does.

"I've always supported the employees' right to organize," she said. "If Mike has now come around to the right side of things, we can definitely talk about a number of union issues."

Prewitt's was one of a number of mixed reactions Thursday to Fasano's idea. The New Port Richey Republican is considering filing a bill to allow Pasco County sheriff's deputies to organize. It's a move opposed by Sheriff Lee Cannon and the Florida Sheriff's Association.

Unlike most public employees, sheriff's deputies cannot form collective bargaining units without either the permission of the sheriff or a special act of the Legislature, the courts have said. The latter has happened in only five of Florida's 67 counties.

Fasano wrote a letter this month to Cannon, saying that a number of sheriff's 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 Thursday that he did not consider the issue to be a partisan one.

"Most conservative Republicans wouldn't consider doing something like this," he said, "but I don't look at it as a Republican or Democratic thing. I look at it as just floating an idea.

Some of Fasano's fellow Republicans agreed.

County Commissioner Ed Collins, a Republican who has often opposed Cannon's budget requests, said he was open to the idea.

"I'm not opposed to unions _ I think it's up to the people involved," he said.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican whose district includes much of west Pasco, said he could not say whether he would support a bill to unionize the Sheriff's Office should Fasano decide to file one. But he said he would give it careful consideration.

"I'm undecided," he said. "I'm not sure about the ramifications of this, but I have great confidence in Rep. Fasano _ normally we work very closely on things."

County Commissioner Sylvia Young, a Democrat, also was undecided. But she said a union would not necessarily mean more money for law enforcement.

"If they (deputies) go for the union, what they'd be saying is the money the sheriff is getting is going to different priorities than what they want," she said.

Other local politicians were more inclined to oppose the idea.

"I've not supported similar bills in the past," said state Rep. Carl Littlefield, a Republican from Dade City. "It really limits the power of the sheriff to be the boss, and coming from a business background, I know sometimes the boss has to be the boss."

County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, a Republican, said she has never heard "any hue and cry" from rank-and-file officers about organizing. Like Prewitt, she was surprised to hear that Fasano was considering supporting the idea.

"Mike's platform is extremely conservative," Hildebrand said. "Unions are not a conservative issue. It seems a little incongruous."

County Commissioner Pat Mulieri, another Republican, also questioned whether deputies really wanted a union, though she said she was not totally opposed to the idea.

"I would think something such as this should be initiated by the Sheriff's Office," she said. "Nobody's ever said anything about wanting a union, not at the budget hearings, where they said they wanted more money, not the Fraternal Order of Police _ I would have to listen to what the officers have to say."

Fasano said he has spoken to several pro-union deputies at fairs, parades and other public functions. He said he had a number of phone calls from deputies Thursday, after a newspaper article detailed his idea. But he said none left their names.