Human Resources Department to handle San Luis Obispo County labor talks again

The county is moving labor negotiations back into its Human Resources Department, where they were handled until 2003, when they were taken over by then-County Administrator David Edge and Assistant County administrator Gail Wilcox.

As part of the change, which has been taking place in increments over the past year, Human Resources Director Tami Douglas-Schatz is asking the Board of Supervisors to hire the consulting firm Renne, Sloan, Holtzman and Sakai as lead negotiators in upcoming contract negotiations.

The cost would be $155,000, two-thirds of which would come from money saved when the county fired Edge and Wilcox last year and left their jobs briefly vacant. Supervisors will discuss the proposal Tuesday.

County Administrator Jim Grant suggested the change. Douglas-Schatz became management representative on March 2.

In her request to supervisors to approve hiring the consultants, Douglas-Schatz notes that most California counties, as well as other local governments, assign labor relations and “compensation systems management” to their Human Resources Department.

Although Douglas-Schatz did not mention Edge and Wilcox by name, she wrote that removing labor relations from the Human Resources Department “creates communications challenges where ... decisions are made in a vacuum.”

That, she added, can “profoundly undermine the concept of management accountability.”

“Some of the most enduring financial decisions the board will make are the result of economic commitments agreed upon at the bargaining table,” she wrote.

Wilcox was fired last year for allegedly having an affair with Deputy Sheriffs Association negotiator Tony Perry while she was negotiating contracts on behalf of taxpayers. Nobody charged her with legal wrongdoing.

Supervisors fired Edge in May because, they said, they wanted to go in a different direction, after the board majority changed hands in the 2008 elections.

Only one of the five supervisors who hired Edge, Katcho Achadjian, remains on the board, and he is leaving to run for state Assembly.

During their time in charge, Edge and Wilcox both faced criticism for negotiating contracts with county employee unions that were considered, in some quarters, too generous.

Getting a strong grip on labor relations is especially important today, Douglas-Schatz wrote, as the county continues to face multimillion dollar budget shortfalls. The projected gap between revenue and planned spending this year is $19 million.

Roughly 65 percent of the county’s operating budgets are personnel costs, she wrote, and 80 percent of the workforce is represented by 16 bargaining units. Fourteen of those have contracts that will be open for negotiations this coming year, Douglas-Schatz wrote, calling that level of activity “unprecedented.”

There are 2,450 county employees, down roughly 13 percent from a few years ago.

In her letter to the board, Douglas-Schatz indirectly fired a warning shot across the bow of employee associations.

“Governmental leaders must ... regain control of pension costs,” she wrote, “while negotiating in good faith.”

Long-standing practices are being challenged, she wrote, with the “bargaining process and outcomes ... increasingly public matters (that) directly impact service levels.”

She said more negotiations are ending in impasse — where both sides lock in disagreement and talks stall — unfair labor practice charges are increasing and short-term contracts are growing in number, “requiring a constant state of contract negotiations.”

She predicted “a permanent change in California public sector labor relations.”