County close to a deal with Sheriff’s Department workers

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AUBURN — About 80 workers at the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department — patrol deputies, jail guards and dispatchers — may finally have a labor contract.

Union members approved an offer late Tuesday from the three-member county commission, potentially ending more than three years of deliberation and 29 months of work without a contract.

The deal was still unsigned, though.

On Wednesday, union leaders including President Delbert Mason and negotiator Eric Samson met with County Clerk Patricia Fournier to clarify points of the agreement.

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Ratification of the contract, including the signing by both sides, could come as soon as next Wednesday, County Commission Chairman Randall Greenwood said.

Both sides declined to talk about the offer’s details, pending ratification. Mason declined to answer phone calls from the Sun Journal.

“The process is not over,” Greenwood said.

The initial agreement includes three contracts, Commissioner Elaine Makas said. The first would cover 2009. The second would cover 2010. The third would affect 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The final discussion happened without lawyers, she said.

The parties met without counsel on May 4, deciding to work through a short list of relatively minor disagreements, Makas said.

“Before the meeting, I felt we were so close,” she said. “For me, it was the frustration of knowing that we weren’t that far apart.”

Both sides compromised and the union left the meeting with an offer, she said.

“I’m delighted,” Makas said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a done deal.”

Though Chairman Greenwood is eager to finish the process, he said he was unhappy with the offer. He refused to elaborate, saying only that the offer veered from the recommendations of a fact-finding report released last fall.

The offer, he said, had the support of Commissioner Jonathan LaBonte and Makas. Two of the three commissioners was all it needed.

On Wednesday morning, Sheriff Guy Desjardins said he hoped the end was close.

“I think it’s going to bring a big sense of comfort to everyone,” he said.  

Jail Administrator John Lebel said he was happy for the workers. Many have waited a long time for raises.

“It could go a long way toward easing tensions,” he said.

Neither he nor Desjardins were involved in the negotiations. Those were exclusively between the commissioners and the union.

So far, the process has been a marathon that’s required the work of mediators, fact-finders and lawyers.

Negotiations began in 2008 with a previous County Commission. When all three commissioners lost their seats at the end of the year, negotiations started over with the new commission. Since the beginning of 2009, workers have been without a contract.

The sides have been talking since.

Prior to this week, at least three offers had been made and three votes failed. In protest, workers grew whiskers and, in some cases, wore street clothes instead of uniforms.

Mediation began in early 2010. When that failed, the process went to fact-finding.

Makas believes the hardest work is over, finally. She credited both sides with finding common ground.

“Working together works,” she said.

LaBonte was more cautious.

“It’s good to be closer to the finish line,” he said. “But we’re not there yet. When we get there, I’ll celebrate.”

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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