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Union Seeks An Opponent For Sweetser It’s All Based On Contract Disputes, Union’s Political Coordinator Says

The union that gave $6,000 to help elect Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser in 1994 is now running newspaper ads to help defeat him this fall.

Sweetser, a 39-year-old Democrat, intends to seek a second term.

Several attorneys are considering challenging the incumbent, but none has publicly announced candidacy.

Starting with a quarter-page advertisement in today’s Spokesman-Review, the Washington County and City Employees union says it wants to support a pro-union candidate to run against Sweetser.

“This is all based on union contract disputes,” said Judith Gilmore, the union’s new political coordinator.

Today’s ad reads: “WANTED: Candidate for Spokane County Prosecutor.”

It lists Sweetser’s $88,871-a-year salary and benefits, then says: “Must be willing to fight crime, not his own employees” - a swipe at the turmoil and union battles that plagued the prosecutor’s office both before and after Sweeter’s election.

Gilmore said the union plans to continue running the ads through the election. She added the campaign may branch into TV and radio commercials.

The campaign’s goal is finding “someone who knows that when you have a contract, you respect that contract and respect your employees,” Gilmore added.

Sweetser is on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment.

Martin Muench, the county’s senior civil deputy prosecutor, criticized the ad for making union support the sole test of a candidate’s worth.

“I thought the main qualifications would be if that person is a competent trial lawyer who can take cases to court and win them,” Muench said.

In his 1994 campaign, Sweetser pledged to fix problems in the prosecutor’s office by giving clerical workers and deputy prosecutors something they never had before - collective bargaining.

That stance earned him support - and more than $6,200 in contributions - from the city and county workers union in 1994.

After defeating Steve Matthews for the job, Sweetser decided the county’s 70 deputy prosecutors had no right to a union and are “at will” employees who can be fired at any time.

Another 45 clerical and support workers in his office belong to a union - Local 1553 of the Washington Council of County and City Employees.

Sweetser insists those clerical workers can’t make him sign a contract that gives them the same job protections enjoyed by classified workers in other county departments.

Similar union-paid ads will start appearing in the newspaper next week, asking for candidates to run for nine District Court judge positions available this fall.

Judges in that court have adopted the same anti-union stance as Sweetser.

Today’s ad and others planned through the November election argue that Sweetser must be replaced with a more effective administrator.

“This goes beyond whether someone is for or against the union,” said Bill Keenan, staff representative for the employees union.

“That office is one of the most important positions in the county, in fighting crime and guaranteeing safety,” he said.

Gilmore said the campaign will not be just a narrowly focused attack on Sweetser.

“The ad lets people know that if they’re thinking of running, there’s already a volunteer base ready to serve and support the right person in the campaign,” she said.

“An awful lot of people believe the prosecutor’s office and the District Court judges are misspending taxpayer money.”

She said the judges and Sweetser wasted taxpayer money by filing lawsuits in 1996 opposing union representation.

Those suits came after a state agency ruled that deputy prosecutors and District Court workers were entitled to collective bargaining.

In the fall of 1996, a Lincoln County judge ruled in Sweetser’s favor against the union. That ruling was moved out of Spokane County to avoid conflicts of interest.

The state Supreme Court last week heard arguments by union attorneys who are challenging that Lincoln County decision.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo