Justices: Deputies may join unions


Published: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 30, 2003 at 11:11 p.m.

Facts

AT A GLANCE

  • Alachua County Sheriff Steve Oelrich said the decision could prove "cumbersome" for elected officials who might promise change in a department and then have to deal with issues stipulated in a union contract.

  • Instead of policies varying from county to county, deputies around the state are entitled to collective-bargaining rights and can unionize, a majority of the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
    "They can apply what has previously been denied to them and that is a constitutional right. They can't be discriminated against for trying to do that," said Steve Meck, general counsel for the Public Employee Relations Commission in Tallahassee.
    Alachua County Sheriff Steve Oelrich, who also is president of the Florida Sheriff's Association, said the decision could prove "cumbersome" for elected officials who might promise change in a department and then have to deal with issues stipulated in a union contract.
    The justices handed down the 4-3 decision, which stemmed from an attempt by Brevard County deputies to participate in a Sheriff's Office employees' union.
    Brevard County Sheriff Phil Williams had objected, saying deputies have no such rights.
    A 1970s court case had determined that deputies were not public employees. Therefore, they were not entitled to unionize and argue issues such as pay or benefits.
    But the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, which sought to become the bargaining agent for the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, argued that state laws governing the collective-bargaining rights of law enforcement employees were conflicting and inconsistent. The rules, they said, allowed deputies in some counties to unionize but not in others.
    In its ruling the court noted, "The right to collectively bargain is a fundamental right explicitly vested in all Florida employees by the Florida Constitution . . . To the extent that the sheriff has failed to demonstrate why a deputy sheriff does not come within the ambit of the definition of an employee, and to the extent that the state has equally failed to articulate a compelling interest, outside of merely maintaining some traditional status between a sheriff and deputies, a deputy sheriff may not be deprived of the constitutional right to collectively bargain."
    A majority opinion of justices also found the state had no compelling interest in depriving deputy sheriffs of collective-bargaining rights since all police officers and many deputies have unions.
    In a dissenting opinion, Senior Justice Major B. Harding said the court had exceeded the constitutional bounds of its jurisdictional limits.
    Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@ gvillesun.com.

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