Deputies may put unionizing to a vote
By DUANE BOURNE
BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County sheriff's deputies could be voting within a few months on whether to form a union, officials said, after the Fraternal Order of Police filed a petition this week to represent the deputies.
The filing came just days after the Police Benevolent Association, a competing union, petitioned the state Public Employees Relations Commission for exclusive rights to represent Hernando's roughly 200 deputies.
The two unions have been battling in several counties to unionize sheriff's deputies after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in January that deputies have the right to form unions.
Steve Meck, general counsel for the PERC, said that once several issues, including who is eligible for union membership, are hammered out, it usually is two to four months before an election is held.
Under the PERC's definition, a collective bargaining unit usually does not include management and may exclude officers at and above the rank of lieutenant.
Meck said that the PERC has seen a sharp increase in the number of petitions filed by both unions since the Supreme Court overturned a 1978 decision and granted Florida sheriff's deputies the right to bargain over wages, hours and work conditions.
Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent said the Supreme Court decision has led to a battle of one-upmanship between the two unions. The unions have gone so far as to visit some deputies' homes to obtain authorization cards, he said.
Nugent said he worries that the unions' efforts could disrupt the cohesiveness that exists within the Sheriff's Office.
One option the deputies have, the sheriff notes, is not to unionize at all.
"Just because you sign interest cards does not mean that there is going to be a union," said Nugent, who belongs to the fraternal wing of the local FOP lodge that has existed for several years.
In an internal memo sent to sheriff's deputies on March 25, Nugent told the rank and file that even though he is not against unionization, he questions whether it would be in the best interest of the deputies or the Sheriff's Office.
"I certainly understand why you organize," said Nugent, explaining that the office's civilian employees have always had the right to unionize but have chosen not to.
"But my position is because of the way (collective bargaining) is structured in Florida, there is no binding arbitration. You could arbitrate, but if the county does not have the tax dollars to raise salaries, for instance, you can't. It's a gamble."
John Park, president of the PBA's Central Florida chapter, disputed that claim. He said that if a group wins the right to form a collective bargaining unit, both the Sheriff's Office and the deputies could draft a contract that enables binding arbitration.
In the meantime, Park was hesitant to characterize the group's push to represent Hernando deputies as any type of battle, though there are comments on the PBA's Web site about a possible changing of the guard in a county long considered FOP territory.
"There's no fight," said Park, who characterized recent meetings with sheriff's deputies as "information management sessions."
"(The FOP's) bottom line is the dollars; ours is the deputies. There's no fight. It's a decision among the deputies."
Steve Klapka, president of the local FOP, said he supports unionization and wants the FOP to be the group that represents deputies.
Klapka agreed with Park that the decision will be left up to deputies. However, he said that the PBA has set a bad precedent in Hernando by turning its back on the Sheriff's Office in 1997 when a sheriff's deputy was involved in a serious accident that killed two bystanders.
Instead of offering legal support, Klapka said, "the PBA dropped the ball."
"As far as the war," he said, "if the PBA were so interested in representing us, where were they seven years ago? Unfortunately, they did not come through."
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