Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Lawsuits have been withdrawn and tentative agreements drafted between Del Norte County government and its dissenting employees union this week. The two groups have been battling over budget crisis-induced paycuts.

We have reached a tentative agreement. And because the county was willing to come back to the table, we have agreed to withdraw the injunctions, said Jim Smith, the Del Norte County Employees Association bargaining representative from Eureka.

Agreement is still tentative and confidential because it has not been voted on by the general union membership. The pact, however, was agreed upon by most of the unions nine board members.

The agreement spells the end, at least for the moment, of heightened tensions between the county and the staff.

The two groups squared off after the county Board of Supervisors declared this years $1.7 million budget deficit a financial emergency.

Days later, the supervisors voted to cut all employee paychecks by 5 percent and charge employees more for health care coverage. Also, some positions at the Sheriffs Department were eliminated.

Lawsuits to get the county to stop the cuts were filed by the union both last month and as recently as Tuesday.

The point was not to harm the county but to get them back to the table, Smith said.

But Del Norte County counsel Bob Black said the suits were harmful. There were at least three suits filed, one with the states Public Employment Relations Board and two with the Del Norte Superior Court which Black had to draft formal responses to. Black was also entrenched in advising the county while the two groups tried to come to agreement.

Its been all-time consuming, Black said, keeping his office from focusing on several other duties.

The lawsuits have also caused groups of employees to work against one another.

A group of at least 35 percent of county employees signed a petition to have the union board disbanded.

The employee group was angry over the union boards unwillingness to settle for the 5 percent cut and its insistence on filing lawsuits, according to assessors office employee, Marty Maready, who helped get the petition going.

The union board has also been split.

As Smith and the nine union board members met this week to discuss dropping the already filed injunctions, at least two members balked.

Mike Riese and Nan Udell, both board members of the union and both candidates in this years district attorney race, complained the lawsuits were productive and shouldnt be dropped.

There is divisiveness on the board, which is unfortunate. I feel like we gained ground with the lawsuits, said Udell, currently serving as a Del Norte County deputy district attorney for the Family Support office.

And both Udell and Riese say they are dissatisfied with Smiths representation. It was Smith who advised the union board to withdraw the lawsuits. Udell and Riese said that was bad advice, because it may compromise further negotiations.

We reached a tentative agreement based on if we suspend our legal actions ... but part of the agreement necessitates more negotiations, Udell said.

County attorney Black and even the unions Smith said the lawsuits, filed directly with the Superior Court and authorized by Mike Riese, were illegal and not valid.

Both men said all government employee union grievances must be filed with the states Public Employment Relations Board. Then if the board deems the unions complaint valid, the boards attorneys will take it to court for a judges decision. This was confirmed by PERB attorney Robin Wesley.

Riese and Udell, however believe differently. We would not have filed it, if we didnt feel it was valid, Riese said.

Also, Black said Riese had no authority to sign and authorize the latest suit because he is not a member of the unions negotiating team.

Union members will vote whether to accept the countys newest offer next week.