Contra Costa Sheriff deputies won’t give up retaliation lawsuit

MARTINEZ — Despite suffering a major setback in federal court, the Contra Costa Deputy Sheriffs Association said Wednesday it won’t drop a lawsuit that accused county lawmakers of threatening retribution over the union’s campaign to overturn their ill-fated 33 percent pay hike.

“No citizen should feel like they are going to be threatened by an elected official for exercising their rights under the law,” said retired Deputy Jim Bickert, who is now a union representative. “We just want the court to acknowledge that.”

The sheriffs’ union had accused Supervisors Mary Piepho and Karen Mitchoff of threatening to come down hard in future contract negotiations and impose “Chuck Reed type pension reform” as punishment for opposing a raise the supervisors voted themselves last October.

However, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson dismissed the union’s complaint one week before oral arguments were scheduled. In a 17-page order issued Tuesday, he wrote that even if the allegations were true, they did not amount to a violation of the union’s First Amendment or collective bargaining rights.

Henderson gave the union until April 15 to amend its complaint. Although Henderson’s order appeared to give the union little hope of prevailing, its attorney Zachery Lopes of the law firm Rains Lucia Stern, said the union felt strongly about not giving up the case

County Counsel Sharon Anderson said she expected the county to prevail once again if the union proceeded with its lawsuit.

“Judge Henderson’s order made it clear that the facts don’t support the (union’s) legal claims,” she said. “So even though the court gave it the opportunity to amend its compliant, this order will make it difficult for the (union) to proceed.”

The union’s stance underscores lingering tension with the supervisors in the aftermath of the pay raise battle.

“It’s changed the relationship considerably to the point that there is hardly any relationship at all,” Bickert said. He said the union currently only has good relations with Supervisor Candace Andersen, who cast the lone vote against the initial pay raise and was not named in the lawsuit.

That raise caused an uproar because it boosted the supervisors’ annual pay from $97,476 to $129,216.

Supervisors rescinded it in January after public employee unions, including the Deputy Sheriffs Association, gathered nearly 40,000 signatures to put the raise to a public vote. The board later approved a more modest 7 percent raise that will increase their annual pay to $104,307.

According to court papers, Piepho told former union President Ken Westermann during the petition drive that the union had “made a bad decision and it is not going to end well for you guys.”

And Mitchoff was accused of telling Bickert that “human nature says there will be negative ramifications” for the union if it continued with a referendum to overturn the raises..

However, Henderson wrote that the statements alone were not enough to grant the union’s request for a declaration that supervisors violated their First Amendment and collective bargaining rights.

To prevail, the union would have had to have shown that supervisors carried out their threats with “the loss of a valuable governmental benefit or privilege,” Henderson wrote.

“Instead, according to the compliant, two members of the board have made threats regarding future contract negotiations and issued harsh but ultimately hollow words regarding pension reform.”

Mitchoff said that her comments were mischaracterized in the lawsuit and that “there was never going to be any retribution.”

“It was a very sad and tense time,” she said. “I’m hopeful we can all move beyond this.”

Henderson also dismissed the union’s First Amendment claims against supervisors John Gioia and Federal Glover, neither of whom were accused of threatening retribution.

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.

http://www.mercurynews.com/my-town/ci_27787016/contra-costa-sheriff-deputies-wont-give-up-retaliation