Opinion

Sue Rahr Charter must grant union bargaining authority to county sheriff

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The King County Charter is currently open for a review that occurs once every 10 years. The Charter Review Commission has been gathering information and deliberating, and will soon forward amendments they endorse to the County Council. The Council will consider those recommendations, then decide which amendments will be placed on the ballot this fall. The voters will have the final say.

The current charter language gives the King County executive authority over Sheriff’s Office labor matters. It is a holdover from the past, when the sheriff was an appointed department head under the executive’s office. In 1997, citizens voted by an overwhelming majority to make the sheriff an independent, elected official, directly accountable to the voters. However, the language giving the executive authority over sheriff’s office labor issues was not changed, creating an untenable situation that defies basic management sense.

I have proposed an amendment that gives the sheriff, rather than the county executive, the authority to bargain and manage the labor contracts with Sheriff’s Office employees. Under my proposal, the sheriff would have authority over management rights and working conditions, and the county executive would retain authority over wages and benefits. In simple business logic, this aligns the authority to manage the labor agreements with the responsibility that the sheriff has for those employees.

Unions represent all 750 commissioned deputies and most of the 350 civilian staff of the Sheriff’s Office. I am the elected official accountable to the voters for the conduct and work of those employees. Let me give you an example of how the current system is problematic.

Last year, the County Council passed an ordinance creating an independent oversight program for complaints made against Sheriff’s Office employees, a move that I strongly support. Some very limited aspects of the program are subject to bargaining, but not the entire program. The union filed an Unfair Labor Practice Complaint. Without my knowledge or input, the executive met with the union and agreed to settle the complaint. Implementation of the entire program was stopped until all aspects of the program could be bargained — a process that has dragged on for more than a year and remains unresolved.

The irony is that the citizens of King County hold the sheriff responsible for not having implemented independent oversight. They are not aware that the executive has the final authority over bargaining management rights that currently don’t exist in the Sheriff’s Office, including: performance evaluations, performance standards, overtime limits and term limits in high-risk undercover assignments.

I have worked diligently for the past three years to create a more professional, accountable and transparent organization. Many of those changes have to be bargained, a process under the control of the executive. No sheriff can effectively implement reforms when the labor unions have direct negotiating rights with another elected official — one who has different priorities and philosophy for dealing with labor issues. The existing environment is the result of a structural deficiency in the charter that we have the opportunity to correct.

To date, my proposed charter amendment has been endorsed by the Sheriff’s Blue Ribbon Panel, former county executives Randy Revelle and Gary Locke, the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

In Washington state, 28 of the 39 elected sheriffs, the King County prosecutor and court systems have the authority to manage their labor unions as I have proposed. It is a process that has proven to be legal and effective.

If you agree with my proposal, I encourage you to contact the County Council with your input.

Sue Rahr is the King County Sheriff.

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