The Record Newspapers - Hometown News For Orange County, Texas

By Dave Rogers
For the Record 

OC leaders, deputies hold CBA talk

 

Last updated 9/21/2021 at 8:20pm

Dave Rogers

Orange County Sheriff's Office patrol vehicles are parked overnight in a county storage area next to the Sabine River.  RECORD PHOTO: Dave Rogers

Orange County will hold open deliberations for a new bargaining agreement between the county, its Sheriff, Lane Mooney, and the Sheriff's Office deputies' association at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 22 in the commissioners courtroom.

The three sides have been operating under a collective bargaining agreement created in 2009 and only partially amended since because the deputies refuse to give in on two primary features of the CBA.

At the same time, the deputies agreed to a "me too" clause in 2019 that says they get the same pay raises and benefits as other county employees.

While County Commissioners OK'd an austerity budget last week with no raise for employees other than a 25-cent per hour ($10 per week) cost of living adjustment, deputies reportedly have been seeking a much greater salary increase.

What the past four County Judges and present and past commissioners have sought to have removed from the contract is a so-called "evergreen" provision which allows the contract to stay in place forever if changes aren't agreed upon by all sides.

Sheriff Mooney and his predecessor, Keith Merritt, have sought to get rid of a "just cause" clause that means the Sheriff cannot hire and fire, or discipline deputies, at will, except when taking office.

The current CBA allows deputies to file grievances, then take them to their association's Grievance Committee, which can send the disputes to binding arbitration. Arbitrators normally rule against cities and counties, according to those who represent cities and counties in bargaining.

Sheriff Mooney has not commented, which department insiders say is because he's been ordered not to.

Neither Dustin Bock, president of the Orange County Sheriff's Office Employees Association, or local attorney Stephen Townsend, who is representing the association on behalf of Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), have returned numerous phone calls from The Record.

The word from CLEAT's Austin headquarters is that the deputies fear they will be fired by Mooney if they talk to reporters.

Houston attorney Larry Simmons, representing the county last year said too much ambiguity exists in the current CBA, why the county seeks a new one.

The county has paid out several hundred thousand dollars in recent years on legal fees and settlements for grievances, money that could be used for deputies' raises and fixing roads, for instance.

Every dollar paid out on a lawsuit is paid for with citizens' tax dollars.

Texas law holds that a county's law enforcers serve at the pleasure of the Sheriff, so an incoming Sheriff must appoint or deputize in writing every deputy working in the Sheriff's Officer.

The assignment of deputies ends when their appointing Sheriff's term ends. Merritt retired June 30, 2020.

Thirteen of the former deputies who were not retained by Mooney when he took over for Merritt in July of 2020 filed grievances, saying Mooney's choice not to re-deputize them following the change in Sheriff's Office leadership qualified as a disciplinary action.

Those deputies – Matt Bryant, Samantha Courtney, Cenovia Maria Dempsey, Mark Felts, Elizabeth Frederick, Jason Guidroz, Donald Harmon, Andrew Hollier, Jessica Johnnie, Michael Lucia, Jonathan Payne, Tracy Sorge and Matthew Wappler – were represented by attorney Gregory Cagle and TMPA.

By late August 2020, the deputies, through Cagle, notified Mooney of their intent to submit their grievances to binding arbitration.

The county and the Sheriff, represented by Simmons, filed for and won a temporary restraining order to stop the arbitration process.

Simmons argued the deputies' parting with the Sheriff's Office did not meet the CBA's definition of "disciplinary action" and that the county would be "immediately and irreparably harmed," by being required to spend time and money preparing and presenting its case.

Eventually, after several extensions of the TRO,

Visiting Judge Buddie Hahn ruled in favor of the county and Mooney that the deputies' gripes were not actionable under the CBA.

Gothia and others, including CLEAT Executive Director Charley Wilkison, have talked about a big turnover in OCSOEA membership in recent months. Only 84 of 120-odd eligible deputies were OCSOEA members in mid-September.

Wilkison accused Orange County and Mooney of "union-busting" when CLEAT first began to represent the deputies in early September.

He shared with The Record Newspapers two grievances signed by Bock that charged Gothia with setting up and holding illegal closed-door meetings and claimed that Mooney had ended the practice of letting deputies drive their cars home at end of shift in order to force dropping the grievances.

Gothia has emphatically denied negative assertions about his actions in the grievance.

Mooney has remained silent – saying he'll talk at a later time.

But others have pointed out that a likely reason for the elimination of take-home cars was the combination of higher gas prices and many more miles driven by Mooney's deputies.

Commissioners asked the Sheriff's Office to cut back on gas usage at their Aug. 24 meeting, after they were asked to transfer $51,000 from one Sheriff's Office account to the SO oil and gas account, which had run dry.

Gothia maintained for several weeks that he needed a CBA agreement in order to finish the 2022 budget. But last week, the budget was approved, with a contingency set aside to cover CBA uncertainties.

Wilkison was looking forward to a peaceful conclusion of the negotiating, too.

"The bottom line is all the wrong things that were done are correctable," he said.

 

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