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Judge: Public ‘will be served’ once Donovan pays sheriff’s officers

Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia

INSIDE THE RULING : Taxpayers “will be served, not harmed” if Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan delivers the negotiated 2011 and 2012 pay raises that she so far has denied county sheriff’s officers, Superior Court Judge Joseph Conte wrote, in refusing to reconsider his order of last month that Donovan do so immediately.

Donovan’s denial has become “a hardship to those officers who have not received the benefits of their approved negotiated contracts,” the judge ( photo above ) wrote in the nearly 14-page decision first obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT in Hackensack this afternoon.

  • YOU READ IT HERE FIRST (WITH REACTIONS) : A Superior Court judge refused to delay his order that Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan implement the 2011 and 2012 pay raises to Bergen County Sheriff’s officers that she thus far has denied. READ MORE….

The judge considered and ruled on several issues raised by the Police Benevolent Association Local 134 and Donovan, beginning with whether or not he has jurisdiction over their dispute.

The union and Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino contended that the proper venue is state court. Donovan said responsibility for choosing whether she or they are right rests with the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC).

Donovan reasoned that the matter is an unfair labor practice known as “refusing to reduce a negotiated agreement to writing and to sign such agreement.” As such, she said, PERC should jurisdiction.

Conte disagreed. He said the issue involves a question of law — specifically, the interpretation of one statute (NJSA 40A:9-117) and its conflict with another (NJSA 40:41A:36).

It involves “a negotiated and executed agreement between Bergen County PBA Local 134 and the Sheriff, which the County Executive refuses to implement,” and not a situation where there is a refusal to reduce an agreement to writing, the judge wrote.

Donovan also contended that, as chief executive officer of the county, she has the right to “negotiate contracts for the county subject to [freehold] 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, in turn, relied on 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.

Conte agreed.

He said Donovan “relies heavily” on a New Jersey case titled “Prunetti v. Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders” — an approach that he characterized as “misplaced.”

Although Mercer and its sheriff were considered joint employers for purposes of collective bargaining in that particular instance, NJSA 40A:9-117 essentially reveresed that opinion.

The new 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,” Conte wrote.

“The applicable statute is intended to give the Sheriff the exclusive power to negotiate contracts of its employees,” the judge ruled. “[C]onsidering the fact that Prunetti was decided prior to the enactment of the statute, the Court finds that Defendant’s reliance on the holding in Prunetti is not persuasive.”

Conte concluded that the union and Saudino demonstrated, to him, “a reasonable probability of success on the merits” of their case before any judge in New Jersey — local, appeals or Supreme.

A “balancing of equities and hardships favors injunctive relief,” the judge wrote, adding that there would be “irreparable injury” if the court didn’t intervene.

“The public interest will be served, not harmed, by granting [the union and sheriff’s] request for implementation of the negotiated contracts,” Conte wrote.

STORY, PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia

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