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‘Everyone wins,’ sheriff’s PBA president says after Tedesco has Donovan pay-freeze suit dismissed

Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

SHOUT OUT: Fulfilling a key campaign promise, new Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco made sure today that the county heeds an order from New Jersey’s highest court that sheriff’s officers receive their legally-bargained pay raises.

By filing a “stipulation of dismissal” with the state Supreme Court, attorneys for the county officially ended a protracted legal battle waged by the former executive, Kathleen Donovan, whom Tedesco ousted from office in the November election.

Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino (PHOTO: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter)

“The people of Bergen County do not want elected officials legislating through litigation,” Tedesco said. “The courtrooms should be our last resort, not our first response.”

The news was greeted by members of PBA Local 134 and Sheriff Michael Saudino, who said that the action “affirms [Tedesco’s] support for my constitutional authority to negotiate contracts with Bergen County Sheriff’s Officers.”

“It’s been a long 4 years,” PBA President Marcelo Hagopian told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “But the members of PBA Local 134 stuck together, knowing that we would prevail in the court system.

“We gratefully thank Sheriff Saudino for standing by his men and women all the way. Now that Bergen County has a county executive who can work with others, I believe everyone wins.”

Members of of Donovan’s administration “admitted that this lawsuit was an attempt to legislate from the bench,” Saudino said today, “since they recognized that the State Legislature and the Governor’s office would be unlikely to support a law inserting County Executives into this collective bargaining process.

“This litigation was a profound waste of taxpayer dollars,” he added. “It also created an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the County Executive.

“I look forward to working with the County Executive on all matters concerning the safety and well-being of Bergen County residents,” the sheriff said.

Tedesco said today that future contract negotiations will be handled “in open dialogue” as part of a “collegial, collaborative relationship.”

The Supreme Court last fall refused Donovan’s request for a stay of a state appeals court decision in May that ordered her to finally relent on her refusal to pay the legally-bargained raises.

Donovan (inset)

This came after Superior Court Judge Joseph Conte in Hackensack refused to consider any more of her motions, saying that taxpayers “will be served, not harmed” once Donovan delivered.

The Supreme Court supported rulings by Conte and the Appellate Division that only the sheriff himself can negotiate contracts with his officers.

In doing so, they rejected her argument that she should have had a seat at the bargaining table with the local, which represents more than 400 officers.

“In ruling against a stay, the Supreme Court has sent a clear message that the county executive is unlikely to succeed based on the merits of the case,” Saudino said in response.

An even louder response came from a group of sheriff’s officers who created a Facebook group with nearly 7,500 members who helped contribute to Donovan’s ouster last fall.

Attorneys for Donovan argued that the executive, along with the sheriff is a joint employer of his employees, which thereby gives her the right to “negotiate contracts for the county subject to [freeholder] board approval; make recommendations concerning the nature and location of county improvements and execute improvements determined by the board…,” under a state court ruling.

Local 134 and Saudino, however, pointed to a statute approved by lawmakers in Trenton that applies to public contracts.

As an elected official who commands an office, and not an appointed department head who must answer to the executive, the sheriff has the authority to set salaries, they argued.

As CLIFFVIEW PILOT was first to report, Conte ordered the county executive on in December 2012 to honor the contract negotiated by Saudino and the union.

The judge determined that nothing gave Donovan a seat at the bargaining table, as she had insisted.

Saudino — as the head of a government office and not a department — bears that sole right, Conte ruled.

“[T]he negotiated agreement is valid,” the judge wrote. Donovan, he said, “violated the Sheriff’s Office its contract right in refusing to implement the contract at hand.”

Applicable law “is clear in that the sheriff has the power to fix the compensation,” the judge found. “[N]o intervention of the County Executive was required.”

What’s more, he said, the freeholders approved the pact, which Conte said dismisses Donovan’s claim that the county was prevented from participating.

Donovan incorrectly “relies heavily” on a New Jersey case, Prunetti v. Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders, in refusing to pay the raises, contending she should have been at the bargaining table with the union as the chief executive of the county, the judge said.

Following the Prunetti case, lawmakers adopted a state statute reversing its effects, Conte wrote.

According to the state Employer-Employee Relations Act: “The sheriff shall select and employ the necessary deputies, chief clerks and other personnel. The sheriff shall fix the compensation they shall receive in accordance with the generally accepted county salary ranges and within the confines of the sheriff’s budget allocation set by the governing body.”

That statute “was enacted with the clear legislative intent of giving the Sheriff the power to fix the compensation of its employees, and made no mention of the County as being a joint employer for purposes of collective bargaining.”

As a result, Donovan’s “reliance on the holding in Prunetti is not persuasive,” Conte wrote.

Donovan then contended that the judge didn’t have jurisdiction to decide whether Saudino and Local 134 had the right to exclude her from negotiations. That authority, she argued, rested with the Public Employees Relation Commission.

Conte, however, agreed with the union and Saudino that the issue before him wasn’t one of unfair labor practices, which is governed by PERC, but “a question of law” concerning the roles of the sheriff, freeholders and executive.

That law “is intended to give the Sheriff the exclusive power to negotiate contracts for its employees,” he ruled.

The judge emphasized that PERC “has never been provided with the jurisdiction to rule upon statutes that exclusively relate to relationships and inter-relationships between County Sheriffs, local Boards of Chosen Freeholders and County Executives.”

Rather, PERC has the authority to “prevent unfair practices, adjudicate unfair practice charges and issue remedial orders,” specifically in disputes between public-sector unions or individual employees and their employers, Conte wrote in his decision.

Donovan countered that a different law applied, one that gives the county executive the right to “negotiate contracts for the county subject to board approval; make recommendations concerning the nature and location of county improvements and executive improvements determined by the board….”

Conte, however, sided with the union and the sheriff.

Donovan relied on a “more general statute relating to the power of the county executive to negotiate local public contracts laws, and it does not [in] fact govern the roles of the sheriff’s office in negotiating collective agreements with the County PBA Local 134,” the judge ruled.

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