The Sentinel

Mark Gutglueck
Posted on May 28, 2016

In recent weeks SEBA, the union representing San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s deputies, has stepped up activity aimed at persuading top county officials to accede to its demands for compensation increases.

At the depth of the 2007-2013 recession, with the county’s revenues shrinking, raises in general were denied to the county’s workers across the board, and SEBA, an acronym for Safety Employees Benefit Association, made some $28 million in concessions on its previous collective bargaining agreement with the county. It is now SEBA’s contention that the county has made a fiscal recovery and that county officials remain intent on “needlessly stockpiling money” that more properly should be freed up for raises and benefit increases for the county’s sheriff’s deputies and district attorney’s investigators.

SEBA officials maintain the county is in a position to provide deputies with their first raise since 2011. San Bernardino County has proven itself uncommonly stingy, they contend, to the point that San Bernardino County’s deputies are paid on average 14-percent less than officers with surrounding agencies. In December, an impasse in the negotiations was declared as the union turned its nose up at what the county offered and the county refused to budge beyond what it had previously put forth.

This week, SEBA sought to ratchet the pressure up, with union officials accompanied by some 80 Safety Employees’ Benefit Association members and family members gathering outside the San Bernardino County Government Center Tuesday morning, an effort to upstage the board of supervisors, which was to hold one of its regularly scheduled meetings a little later that morning inside the building. The intent was to assert that the deputies are not being treated fairly by the county and show by their presence their determination not to be ignored.

If the union’s current leadership thought this would immediately bring the board of supervisors and the county’s chief executive officer, Greg Devereaux, the county’s lead negotiator, to heel, they miscalculated. By day’s end the impasse remained and there was no indication the county was ready to move toward the position held by the union.

Indeed county officials believe they have good cause to hold their ground. More than two decades ago, Chris Smith was elected president of SEBA. One of his first moves was to raise the monthly dues paid by union members to the hourly rate of the base pay of a deputy sheriff. This angered the rank and file, initially. But Smith and SEBA’s then-treasurer, Jim Erwin, did not let the money molder in a bank account. In short order they put it to work, seeking to strengthen the union.

Smith then went to work, persuading the sheriff and board of supervisors to up the pay of San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s deputies to levels closer to those provided to law enforcement officers in other jurisdictions.

After Smith left as president, he was succeeded by Nancy Smedley, who stayed in place only two years. Smedley’s relationship with the union’s rank and file deteriorated when she failed to hold her own in negotiations with Barbara Musselman, the county’s employee relations division chief and secured what union members felt was a substandard contract and allowed non-sworn custody specialists to serve as guards within the access points within the sheriff’s department jail system.

Jim Erwin succeeded Smedley. He escalated Smith’s political efforts, this time upping the contribution each deputy made to SEBA’s long dormant political action committee tenfold, from fifty cents per month to $5 per month, subsequently to $10 per month and then to $20 per month. In time, SEBA’s political action committee was transformed into the most formidable political vehicle in the county, into which was deposited more than $440,000 annually.

From that political action committee account the union began doling out contributions – substantial contributions – to the county’s elected officials with a command over both the fate and remuneration of deputies. Previously it had been the development community that infused the campaign war chests of those elected officials – members of the board of supervisors, the sheriff, the district attorney and the county treasurer – with the lion’s share of the cash used to purchase newspaper and radio advertising and create and mail out campaign brochures. Virtually overnight, SEBA was making contributions that rivaled or surpassed the money being provided to the county’s top politicians by builders and other members of the development community.

Erwin pressed for higher wages as part of the collective bargaining agreements arrived at with the county, using that as a litmus test for politicians. Those who supported the provision of higher deputy salaries were awarded with mega-contributions. Those who did not were targeted for removal from office. In 2000, First District Supervisor Kathy Davis fell victim when SEBA supplied a significant portion of the bankroll Bill Postmus employed in his effort to unseat her. Erwin turned to outside sources, including developmental and other business interests, for contributions to the SEBA political action committee. By that point, there was no doubt that SEBA had become the new political kid on the block. In 2002, Erwin convinced the SEBA board of directors that then-supervisor Jon Mikels should be targeted for removal, and SEBA endowed the Paul Biane campaign with a major portion of the funding used to oust Mikels.

At that time, a deputy who reached the age of 50 was eligible to retire and draw a pension that equaled his highest annual compensation times the number of years worked times two percent. Thus, a deputy who started with the department at the age of 25 who had stayed there for 25 years and promoted to the rank of sergeant making $100,000 per year would be eligible upon reaching his 50th birthday to receive an annual pension of $50,000 [$100,000 X 30 X .025] for the rest of his life.

Erwin moved to persuade the county to raise the multiplier in the pension formula from 2 percent to 3 percent, succeeding in doing so. Thereafter, a deputy’s pension was calculated by taking the deputy’s highest yearly salary times the number of years he worked with the department times 3 percent, such that the above-cited hypothetical retiree’s pension would be boosted to $75,000 per year.

Erwin left as SEBA president but was subsequently hired on as SEBA’s chief of administration before leaving to become assistant county assessor during a portion of Bill Postmus’s abbreviated tenure as county assessor. Erwin’s successor as SEBA president was Bill Abernathie. Abernathie was succeeded by Laren Leichliter, the current president. The economic downturn that began in 2007 and was accompanied by poor performance in the stock market led to pension funds, including public employee pension funds, missing their expected earnings goals for several years running. This has resulted in public agencies, including San Bernardino County, being required to make up the difference between expected and actual pension fund investment earnings in the county retirement system. This led to the county proposing, and SEBA ultimately accepting, that each new deputy hired after December 31, 2013 wait until the age of 55 to retire and receive a pension that is 2.7 percent, as opposed to 3 percent, of his or her top salary for each year worked with the department. Those in place prior to the January 1, 2014 deadline are entitled to use the 3 percent multiplier in their pension derivation formula. With the specter of pension funds continuing to miss their projected investment earnings targets which would result in governmental entities being continuously required to underwrite the cost of those investment shortcomings, San Bernardino County officials are reluctant to provide further raises to deputies, particularly since most non-safety county employees are entitled to retirement only upon reaching the age of 60 and have a per-year pension multiplier of 2 percent.

Over the last five years, SEBA presidents Abernathie and Leichliter accepted the parameters dictated by the county and the economy. More recently, dissatisfaction has set in among the rank and file represented by SEBA based on the consideration that deputies have gone five years without a raise. Last year, in an effort to pick up some leverage, Leichliter seized upon the opportunity that presented itself when the county’s former human resources director, Andrew Lamberto, found himself caught up in a prostitution solicitation scandal in Orange County. County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux had learned of the incident shortly after Lamberto’s arrest in March 2015, exacted some form of undisclosed administrative discipline against Lamberto and did not inform the board of supervisors. When Orange County’s processing of the case against Lamberto led to belated public discovery of Lamberto’s arrest and Devereaux’s role in keeping the matter under wraps, a firestorm of controversy ensued, during which Devereaux was roundly criticized from several quarters, and discussion of his possibly being terminated as county chief executive officer made the rounds. Leichliter and the union participated openly in that criticism of Devereaux and the effort to have him cashiered. Ultimately, however, the board of supervisors receded from relieving Devereaux of command over the governmental structure in the 2.1 million-population, 20,105 square mile county.

Erwin, the architect of the 3 percent at 50 pension formula for San Bernardino County’s deputies, said Leichliter and the union are floundering.

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