Breaking up is hard to do



Yearlong internal strife in the SLO County Sheriff’s Department is nearing its finale. Union members will soon vote on whether to chop their bargaining unit essentially in half.

Actually the split has been a few years coming, explained Patrick Zuchelli, president of the newly recognized labor group the Association of San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriff’s (referred to as ASLO, and yes the apostrophe is supposed to be there). SLO County supervisors voted unanimously on Jan. 5 to allow ASLO to hold an election and break from the historical labor-negotiating powerhouse of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA).

Zuchelli explained that talks of splitting sworn peace officers—deputies, senior deputies, and sergeants—from the DSA have been ongoing for years. Only recently when both groups became large enough to stand on their own did ASLO decide it would be safe to break away and handle its own labor contract negotiations, he said.

“We don’t want to be a big political organization or a machine,” Zuchelli said, clarifying that ASLO will still back candidates but less so than the DSA has in the past.

The group’s break from the DSA certainly wasn’t clean or happily accepted by DSA’s leadership.

“The county has a vested interest in this because what they want to see is a unit modification, which has horrendous implications for a labor organization,” said DSA President Dale Strobridge.

A group of DSA leaders and lawyers stood whispering among each other in the lobby of the SLO County Government Center deciding what to do next after the supervisors made their decision to deny the DSA’s appeal of the proposed split. Strobridge couldn’t say what that next step is
but hinted that one option is taking the matter
to court.

A public hearing on the matter was soaked in jargon and labor-law legalese. County supervisors even looked confused and bored, and at times, all five had their heads slumped at the same angle with matching glum expressions.

DSA members argued that the county falsely approved an ASLO petition circulated in January 2009 that set the ground to create a new bargaining unit. They said it was unlawful under current labor policy based on the petition’s wording and how it was filed and that ASLO falsely interpreted labor policy. ASLO members, on the other hand, countered that the petition followed those policies, the DSA didn’t formally object in time, and the DSA’s interpretation of the policy was wrong.

“They got all mixed up,” said DSA attorney Alison Berry Wilkinson, who shook her arms as if she was mixing an imaginary can of paint. Attorneys from both sides accused the other of being confused about the law.

The answer to who’s right lies somewhere closer to the middle. County attorneys admitted that the policy on
the books isn’t well-suited for these types of union splits, and in fact, an election
like this to divide the union hasn’t been done before.

As Assistant County Counsel Rita Neal said, “It’s all gray.”

The process was perhaps muddied even further by the fact that Gail Wilcox approved ASLO’s petition to break off in March 2009. Wilcox has since been fired, in part, for having an improper relationship with former DSA executive director Tony Perry. (Perry was at the Jan. 5 hearing but referred to himself as an advisor to the DSA board of directors.)

County supervisors and staffers acknowledged that the ASLO petition had obvious problems when it was approved. But just as many said regardless of the procedural errors, a petition was coming sooner or later and the best thing to do was allow the members to make the decision—in other words, let them vote on whether to break away. An election will take place within the next 45 days in which the sworn members will get to choose whether they want to let ASLO negotiate on their behalf, the DSA, or neither.

But the fracturing of one large bargaining group into two could diminish the overall power of both groups. Asked about a loss of DSA clout, Strobridge said, “It will still remain a strong political voice in county politics regardless of what happens.”

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