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Unions court sheriffs' deputies

Published Sep. 26, 2005

A court ruling encourages efforts to organize deputies in Hillsborough and elsewhere.

A vigorous and unusual appeal went out to Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies Friday.

"The choice is clear. It is your time," read a mass mailing sent by the West Central Police Benevolent Association to 978 patrol deputies. "Don't let fear and intimidation keep you from being in better control of your livelihood."

A recent Florida Supreme Court ruling _ which some attorneys say is ambiguous at best _ is fueling efforts by unions statewide to organize sheriff's deputies. Not since the court forbade deputy sheriffs to collectively bargain in 1978 have unions tried so hard to galvanize mass support, officials said Monday.

"We're definitely thrilled," said Ernie George, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. "We've started organizing here in Palm Beach County and we're looking to organize Central Florida, the Orange County Sheriff's Office and all those."

In Pinellas County, "the blue cards have just come in," reported Jack Soule, an officer with the St. Petersburg Police Department and president of the Pinellas PBA chapter, referring to the cards 30 percent of deputies at any given department must sign for a union to hold an election.

But confidence about the ruling is mostly limited to union officials and their supporters. State regulators said Monday they weren't sure what to make of it.

"The decision is not quite clear" on the rights of sheriff's deputies, said Steve Meck, general counsel for the state Public Employees Relations Commission, which oversees efforts to unionize public workers.

Flagler County, with about 70 deputies, is the first agency since the Jan. 13 ruling to submit petitions with the commission in order to hold a union election.

PBA officials said Brevard County, with 330 deputies, now has the number of signatures it needs to file as well.

And in Hillsborough County, about 200 of the necessary 294 cards have been signed since the mailings several days ago, said West Coast PBA president Jim Thompson.

Meck said the commission will hold a hearing on whether deputies' duties differ enough from those of other public employees to continue to prohibit them from choosing a union. He said the court did not overrule the 1978 case, which shielded sheriffs' departments from unions, but that it did question its validity.

The recent lawsuit was brought on behalf of an Orange County deputy clerk of court who claimed she was fired for trying to organize a union. The court ruled that clerks do have the right to organize, and also discussed the status of deputy sheriffs.

Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice said he won't resist orders to allow a union, if that's what his employees want, but added, "I think the best bargaining agent for deputy sheriffs is the sheriff himself."

Hillsborough County Sheriff Cal Henderson was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment.

Col. David Gee said things like raises are determined more by budgetary constraints than unions.

"The county only has so much money, and whether there's a union or +ot, you're only going to get certain benefits that they can afford," Gee said.

The Broward County Sheriff's Office unionized five years ago when local legislation gave employees that right. Four other counties _ Miami-Dade, Duval, Escambia and Alachua _ have similar laws.

Pat Hanrahan, a Broward sheriff's deputy who has negotiated union contracts, said he understands sheriffs' resistance to unions.

"A sheriff normally doesn't support (a union) because he feels it's taking his power away; and two, they can't get rid of bad cops," Hanrahan said. But if collective bargaining is so bad, Hanrahan said, "why does every municipality have that right?"

Pat Sullivan, sheriff of Arapahoe County, Colo., and an official with the National Sheriff's Association, said courts disallowed unions in sheriffs' departments because, unlike appointed police chiefs, elected sheriffs can be held liable for their employees' actions. And he challenged the contention that sheriffs run agencies according to whim.

"There's still due process," Sullivan said.

But reversing that viewpoint appears likely, say even some skeptics of a new policy.

"Times have changed," said Rice, the Pinellas sheriff. "To say (the right to collective bargaining) doesn't include sheriff's deputies is old thinking."

_ To reach Kathryn Wexler, call (813) 226-3386 or e-mail: