Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Grand jury report rips Contra Costa's handling of labor negotiations

Contra Costa negotiators are so ill-equipped to negotiate with unions that an economic catastrophe could occur, the county's grand jury warned as it released its first report of the new term Wednesday.

"At a time when its unions have signaled that they intend to pursue economic business as usual, including higher wages and benefits, the county lacks a coherent negotiating strategy and trained, experienced negotiators for limiting fiscally unsustainable proposals," the six-page report said.

Fifteen union agreements expired in September, covering about 7,200 of the county's 13,000 employees. Salaries and benefits account for 56 percent of this year's general fund budget. The county and labor representatives have been meeting regularly to negotiate.

The county administrator, who has led labor negotiations since coming to Contra Costa in September, criticized the report, saying the negotiating team has already accomplished most of the eight recommendations. He also announced that the county expects to switch to a two-year budget next fiscal cycle; received a long-awaited total compensation study draft; and hired a new human resource director.

The grand jury has criticized the county's financial practices in previous reports. This report cited a lack of a clear-cut strategy and negotiation training, supervisor intervention and vacant negotiating positions as factors that could lead to financial ruin.

One senior negotiator told the Advertisementgrand jury the county position is "to react once we receive proposals from the unions."

County administrator David Twa called that portrayal inaccurate.

"We have a very clear and defined strategy and part of the issue was the grand jury was looking for that to be shared with them and we can't do that in good-faith bargaining," Twa said.

The report, "Economic Catastrophe Looms: Contra Costa County Continues to be Ill-Prepared for Labor Negotiations," says the county needs more consistency in its negotiating team. Twa, the interim human resources director and a hired labor negotiator have led union discussions, with assistance from the finance director, treasurer and auditor's office.

Twa has hired Human Resources Director Ted Swiek, currently heading El Dorado County's human resources department, to start Feb. 2. The county has kept the labor relations manager position unfilled to allow Swiek to name his own replacement, Twa said.

The grand jury recommends the county adopt a two-year budget, but Twa said he was already heading in that direction.

"When I was hired, one of the things they made very clear was they wanted to move toward a two-year budget and that's been my history wherever I worked," Twa said. "I hope to have it implemented by the next budget cycle."

The two-year plan, Twa says, gives the county a "longer planning horizon."

A rough draft of the much anticipated total compensation study, which compares salary and benefits of Contra Costa workers with other Bay Area employees, will be shared in closed session with supervisors in the next week or two, Twa said.

"It's one tool in our labor negotiations. It certainly won't be the be-all, end-all in the process," the county chief said.

As in previous grand jury reports, it accuses supervisors of meddling in negotiations.

"Individual supervisors have had conversations about what is being negotiated," Twa said, but insisted no discussions have undermined negotiations.

Twa updates supervisors weekly on labor negotiations in closed session.

"This is a difficult, painful year for all of us," Twa said. "Negotiations have been slow primarily because of that. Every time we think we get some place, we realize we don't know the state's budget plans yet."

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