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Thursday, February 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County prosecutors demand raises, complain of unfair bargaining practices

Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French hold a meeting Sept. 12, 2017, in the county’s Public Works Building. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, they voted to stop negotiating union contracts behind closed doors, drawing praise from open-government advocates and rebukes from union leaders. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French hold a meeting Sept. 12, 2017, in the county’s Public Works Building. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, they voted to stop negotiating union contracts behind closed doors, drawing praise from open-government advocates and rebukes from union leaders. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The union representing Spokane County’s deputy prosecutors has launched a public pressure campaign in hopes of rebooting contract negotiations and obtaining wage increases.

Mediated negotiations stalled in August when the union, Local 1553-PA, voted to reject the county’s “last, best and final offer,” which would have immediately raised wages for senior attorneys by 2.5 percent and wages for the two lower attorney classifications by 4.25 percent.

The union also filed a complaint with Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commission, saying the county had “refused to bargain in good faith” and attempted to remove an attorney from the union’s bargaining team “to gain an advantage in negotiations.” A copy of the complaint was obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

“Our goal is to do our job protecting the people of Spokane County, but we cannot keep pace with the caseload and changing nature of law enforcement if we are unable to recruit and retain qualified prosecutors,” Deric Martin, a deputy prosecutor and president of the union, said in a statement. “All we are asking is for a fair negotiation and contract that reflects our worth and contribution to our community.”

To build their case for higher pay, the prosecutors have taken aim at the county commissioners, who last year received 19 percent raises thanks to an independent panel of citizens that sets salaries for elected officials in Spokane County.

The commissioners now make $110,693 per year. While they didn’t play a role in setting that number, they technically could have rejected the recommendation of the Citizens’ Commission on Salaries, which is expected to convene again in November or December. The panel includes six members randomly selected from voter rolls and four members appointed by the county commissioners.

“It is the height of hypocrisy to claim the county is unable to provide a modest cost-of-living increase to the folks keeping our communities safe while pocketing a $17,000 raise for commissioners,” Gordon Smith, who represents the prosecutors union for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, said in a statement.

The commissioners’ salaries were supposed to be roughly equal to the average of commissioner salaries in five other counties – Benton, Kitsap, Pierce, Thurston and Clark – which have comparable budgets, populations and numbers of employees.

On a sleek website that went online Oct. 2, SpokaneCountyDecision.org, the prosecutors say they’re paid only 82 percent of what their counterparts make in those same five counties.

“Spokane County prosecutors aren’t paid comparable wages to their peers,” the website states. “We’re at risk of losing our best prosecuting attorneys to other counties because of low wages.”

The website also specifically calls out Commissioner Al French, who faces an election challenge in November from Democrat Robbi Anthony. French says on his campaign website, “My number one priority is keeping you and your family safe.” The prosecutors reply on their site that “community safety deserves more than just words. It deserves action.”

The county prosecutor’s office has three employment classifications: Attorney 1, Attorney 2 and Senior Attorney. The prosecutors last received a cost-of-living adjustment in December 2015. It was based on 87.5 percent of the upper salary limit for each attorney classification in the five comparable counties.

Under their current contract, starting Spokane County attorneys can make as little as $54,815 per year, while senior attorneys are eligible for up to $108,919.

In response to a list of written questions, county spokesman Jared Webley confirmed that officials had sought to remove from the union’s bargaining team an attorney who works in the civil division of the prosecutor’s office.

“The county questioned the presence of a civil attorney involved in the negotiations process,” Webley wrote. “The parties agreed to allow the attorney in question to remain in the bargaining unit until a successor agreement is reached.”

The union’s labor complaint states that the attorney, Jessica Pilgrim, had been an “integral” member of the bargaining team, “doing most of the research on behalf of the union when preparing for negotiations and serving as a primary spokesperson.”

“The county had no concerns with Ms. Pilgrim’s union membership until it became a disadvantage for the county’s negotiations,” the complaint states.

The county’s elected prosecutor, Larry Haskell, said he couldn’t comment Monday because of the pending complaint. Webley said the commissioners were not able to comment for the same reason.

The commissioners – French, Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney – are scheduled to host a community forum Tuesday evening to discuss the budget for public safety programs.

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