Somers, Lovick clash over new contract for county employees

EVERETT — Wrangling over a new contract for Snohomish County government employees has created another ugly dust-up between two Democrats competing for the executive’s job.

Executive John Lovick’s administration has been negotiating a three-year contract with the AFSCME-affiliated union that represents more than 1,500 county workers.

The union has been among Lovick’s strongest supporters as he tries to win a four-year term in office this November.

County Council Chairman Dave Somers is competing for the executive’s job and finished ahead of Lovick in the Aug. 4 primary. Long before he became a candidate for executive, Somers had challenged Lovick’s financial policies.

The latest flash point was a Wednesday council meeting, when Somers pushed through legislation to turn down a tentative contract agreement Lovick’s office negotiated with the union. The council chairman accused the executive of violating the county charter by straying outside the guidelines the council already set for the contract.

Somers told a room packed with about 100 frustrated union workers that it was better to act now than to wait until employees voted on a contract the council would not endorse.

“We are at an all-time low in our reserves,” he said. “The economy is doing well, county finances are not. We have a responsibility as a county to look at the entire budget.”

Somers was joined by Democratic Councilman Terry Ryan and Republican Councilman Ken Klein in passing a motion rejecting the tentative agreement. They ordered the executive instead to come up with a deal consistent with the direction they’d provided, including future pay and benefits.

Councilmembers Stephanie Wright and Brian Sullivan, who both support Lovick, cast dissenting votes.

“I’ve never seen a motion like this,” Wright said. “I don’t approve of the process.”

Sullivan said they should put the issue “back where it belongs, in executive session.”

Ryan said the executive offered cost-of-living increases that go beyond the inflation benchmarks in the Consumer Price Index. He said he’d have a hard time looking employees in the eye if he approved that raise, then had to lay off parts of the county workforce to make budget.

“I feel terrible about the situation,” he said. “We didn’t create it. It was dumped in our laps.”

Lovick called the council’s vote “a slap in the face” for county workers. He said county negotiators have been acting in good faith.

“These employees are skilled and hardworking women and men dedicated to delivering a variety of essential services to the community, from engineering our roads and bridges to providing nursing services to our most vulnerable citizens,” he said in a press release.

Lovick also called the council’s action “unjustified and unprecedented in the history of Snohomish County.” He said it put the county “at risk for an almost certain unfair labor practice allegation by the union.”

The executive acknowledged that some county employees could lose jobs next year, but contends that has nothing to do with the current negotiations.

“If we have layoffs, it will not be because of this contract,” he said.

It’s up to the union to decide whether negotiations continue, Lovick said.

The union’s old master agreement expired at the end of 2014. It included cost-of-living increase of 1.35 percent for the first year of the contract and 1.5 percent for the next two.

It’s common for local governments to finalize a new union contract months after the old one has expired.

Terms of the new contract aren’t available to the public. Union officials and Lovick said county council members haven’t even read it. Somers said he’s been demanding an update from the executive for more than two months and has yet to receive one.

Typically, details such as pay, medical benefits and leave get hashed out behind closed doors before a proposal reaches the council for a vote.

“We are asking you guys here to respect the process, to respect the negotiations and to respect the employees,” Matthew Miller, a staff representative for the union, told council members Wednesday.

After the vote, Miller raised his voice to tell the room: “This is unacceptable.”

Union president Chris Dugovich criticized Somers directly.

“He’s playing politics,” he said. “He’s going to knock all of the employees down in an attempt to be elected.”

Dugovich heads up the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, whose 16,000-plus members include more than half of Snohomish County employees.

The public-employee union has donated $1,900 to Lovick’s re-election. Firefighters, sheet metal and healthcare unions figure prominently among the incumbent’s other backers.

Somers has not attracted strong union support, but has raised about $91,000 so far — nearly double Lovick’s total. Large chunks of Somers’ support have come from homebuilders, environmentalists and aerospace interests.

For more than a year, a majority of the council has been locked in an ongoing battle with the executive’s office over pay raises for managers.

Last year, the council revoked 10 percent raises for some of Lovick’s top managers. They said the executive followed an incorrect process that isn’t allowed under county code.

This year, the same three-member bloc of the council rolled back a 21 percent raise that Lovick had approved for Sara Bhagat, an attorney who oversees parts of the system that provides lawyers to indigent defendants. She happens to be the daughter of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. In May, the executive raised Bhagat’s pay 25 percent, to $108,124.92, using a different method.

Somers and his council allies said the manager raises set an unrealistic precedent for the rest of the county workforce.

Budget challenges include the potential loss of about $5 million in sales tax revenue at Quil Ceda Village, the flailing county courthouse project and costs from the Oso mudslide. While some council members sound the alarm about what that means, the executive’s office gives county finances a more upbeat assessment. Lovick issued a press release last week about ratings agencies giving the county a strong bond rating and stable outlook.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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