Spokane County’s prosecutor and District Court judges are suing county commissioners in an ongoing battle over union rights.
Representatives of the two offices traveled the wheat fields of Eastern Washington this week seeking an outside judge to hear the case.
They filed tandem lawsuits Tuesday in Lincoln County, but a visiting judge from Adams County agreed to hear them.
Prosecutor Jim Sweetser and the District Court judges don’t want their employees involved in a master contract between the county and seven bargaining units at the courthouse.
Union officials are angered by the latest delay in what they see as an effort to improve wages and working conditions in county offices.
“This (legal action) is costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars,” said Bill Keenan, union representative. “The taxpayers deserve better.”
Commissioners were poised to take action on portions of the master contract Tuesday when Sweetser and the judges stepped in to stop them.
Hearings on the suits were scheduled for Aug. 27 and Sept. 12.
The three commissioners last month signed a letter agreeing to some items in the proposed master contract, including which offices would be included.
Commissioner Phil Harris said the legal wrangling is frustrating because the contract is intended to simplify labor negotiations, not make them more complicated.
“This is one more thing that takes time away from me serving the citizens,” said Harris, referring to the latest lawsuit.
Sweetser argues that his deputy prosecutors are not legally entitled to engage in collective bargaining.
Ironically, as a former deputy prosecutor, Sweetser helped unionize the prosecutor’s office prior to his election two years ago.
District Court judges, led by presiding Judge Daniel Maggs, argue that their employees are not entitled to bargain working conditions with the commissioners, although the judges acknowledge their employees’ right to negotiate with commissioners for wages and benefits only.
The prosecutor and the judges have cases pending before the Superior Court and the state Public Employment Relations Commission on the challenge.
On Tuesday, dozens of county union employees packed into the commissioners hearing room to show support for the master contract.
Keenan told commissioners at a brief hearing that the master contract is an outgrowth of the divisive employee strike in 1993 in which county workers complained about the disparity of salaries and working conditions among the offices.
Other counties have developed master contracts, officials said.
“We are not going to let two individuals stop the rest of us,” Keenan said, referring to Sweetser and Maggs.