BERGEN COUNTY, NJ – A judge has ordered Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan to implement a contract negotiated last year by Sheriff Michael Saudino with the union representing sheriff’s officers.
Bergen County Superior Court Judge Joseph S. Conte ruled in favor of Police Benevolent Association Local 134 and Saudino on Thursday when he found that only the sheriff and not the county executive have the power to negotiate contracts with sheriff’s employees.
Donovan vowed Friday to appeal the ruling, which her attorneys argue ignores previous court decisions in similar cases.
The case is significant because it will define what powers belong to the county executive, a form of government that Bergen County voters approved 26 years ago.
Also at stake is a contract that Donovan has called “reckless spending,” claiming it will put taxpayers on the hook for the $10.5 million in raises it calls for over a four-year span.
Saudino disputes her figures, saying that when retirements and attrition are factored in, the raises will cost closer to $2 million. He contends that’s a reasonable outcome given what the union might have won if the contract had gone to arbitration.
Local 134 President Michael Doyle welcomed the ruling which he contends upholds a long-standing practice of sheriffs, not county executives, signing labor contracts.
If an appeal is filed, Doyle said, “It’s just going to be more waste of taxpayer dollars. … We will continue to hold our ground.”
Saudino’s office issued a press release saying such an appeal would be “hypocritical” given Donovan’s previous statements on the cost of legal appeals.
The union brought the lawsuit against Donovan when she refused to implement the contract after it was approved by the freeholders in May.
The sheriff also joined the lawsuit, arguing that his office has the exclusive role of setting salaries for the department so long as they are within the boundaries of his department’s overall budget.
Donovan contends the freeholders cannot approve a contract that she did not submit to them. She also argued that as county executive, her office should have been allowed to take a direct role in the contract negotiation process.
She also cited a ruling by the state Public Employment Relations Commission which held that she should not have been excluded from the bargaining process. Her attorney argued that because of that ruling, the court had no jurisdiction in the case.
In a 14-page decision, Conte disagreed, saying issues over the relative powers of the sheriff, the freeholders and the county executive should be heard by the court.
Conte also rejected Donovan’s argument that a previous court decision in a similar case in Mercer County upheld a county executive’s role in contract negotiations.
He called Donovan’s reliance on that case “misplaced,” because laws on the matter were changed after the Mercer County case.
Donovan’s chief of staff, Jeanne Baratta, said the judge was wrong on that point, claiming that the Mercer County ruling came 17 years after those laws were changed.