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Judge finds ‘hardship’ in Donovan preventing Bergen sheriff’s officers pay raises

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan’s refusal to implement 2011 and 2012 pay raises to Sheriff Michael Saudino’s officers has created a hardship for them, a judge said in granting their request for relief.

Superior Court Judge Joseph Conte (CLIFFVIEW PILOT PHOTO: Mary K. Miraglia)

Attorney John McCann, the general counsel to the sheriff, said that Conte rightfully ruled that the sheriff is the sole employer for collective bargaining purposes, not the county executive, and that state courts — and not PERC — retain jurisdiction in such cases.

Local 134 sued after the Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) reversed itself on a previous finding that the sheriff is the sole employer. The sheriff joined in the litigation as an interested party.

“The Court recognized that the [L]egislature changed the statute for the purposes of putting the Sheriff in charge of setting the compensation which, of course, was completely ignored by PERC and the County Executive’s attorneys in their previous rulings and arguments,” McCann said.

He was referring to a 1984 amendment 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.”

“[T]he negotiated agreement is valid,” Superior Court Judge Joseph Conte wrote in his decision, citing the amendment.

Donovan, he said in yesterday’s ruling, “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, the freeholders approved the pact, which Conte said dismisses Donovan’s claim that the county was prevented from participating.

  • YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A judge in Hackensack ruled in favor Thursday of Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino and his officers in a battle with County Executive Kathleen Donovan over their 2011 – 2014 contract and raises. An attorney for Donovan said the decision will be appealed. READ MORE….

Donovan attorney Matthew J. Giacobbe told CLIFFVIEW PILOT yesterday: “We will be filing an appeal with the Appellate Division and seeking a stay of the order.”

Donovan contended that Conte didn’t have jurisdiction to decide whether Saudino and Local 134 had the right to exclude her from negotiating pay raises for 2011 and 2012. That authority, she said, rests 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.

“Defendant’s request to dismiss this matter to PERC is hereby denied,” the judge ruled.

The union argued that the salaries increases negotiated are “well within the confines” of the budgets for the past two years for other departments.

In fact, the pay hikes are “substantially less than the salary increases negotiated by the County and the Prosecutor with other law enforcement negotiation units,” the local said.

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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