Knox County authorities debate labor rules

Posted Dec. 16, 2008, at 9:10 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Lawyers representing Knox County commissioners and the Sheriff’s Department argued Tuesday over which set of rules would govern the administration of discipline in the sheriff’s office.

The issue arose in talks over a new labor contract between the county commission and its employees’ labor union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 93.

There is no provision in the current year’s union contract to allow it to be carried over into next year, said attorney Peter Marchesi, representing the county commissioners. The contract must be agreed upon by Jan. 1.

Although nothing was resolved Tuesday, both sides brought the issue into the open and promised to continue working on a pact to the end of the year.

One question involved the possible difference of authority as seen under state law and under the recent county charter of 2006.

State law defines the county commissioners as having final authority over all county officers, elected or appointed, and also says the commissioners must act as a board and not on an individual basis. The county charter, by comparison, vests authority in the county administrator.

Attorney Jonathan Berry, who was asked by Sheriff Donna Dennison to attend the meeting to discuss proposed changes in the contract language, told the commission the issues on authority often are seen as a power struggle between the commissioners and the sheriff’s office.

“I reject that notion. There is a real conflict of laws, here,” Berry said.

Last week at the regular meeting, the commissioners approved motions delegating authority to the county administrator in a number of situations.

“It would be our view that you are consolidating the entire board’s power in an individual, which the statute prohibits,” Berry said.

Contract negotiators have cited “very troubling points between the county administrator’s duties, under the contract, and this law,” Berry said.

He praised the county charter, saying that it was valid as far as it went.

But state laws pertaining to the county’s authority, sheriff’s and county administrator’s responsibilities and employment practices, have not been altered or abrogated by the charter, he added.

The issue arose after the investigation of an incident last year involving several Knox County deputies in which one of them was stunned with a Taser during a bachelor party. Problems arose after Dennison withheld the investigation report pending her decision about discipline, and county commissioners authorized County Administrator Andrew Hart to get a copy of the report, which he eventually did get.

The contract talks between the county and the labor union were expected to continue as needed to the end of the year.

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