Employees of the Iron County Sheriff’s Office have joined ranks with several law enforcement agencies on the Wasatch Front to become members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union.
As the only rural police force in Utah to make the move toward unionizing, deputies maintain they made the decision only after watching what happened between former Lt. Jody Edwards and the Iron County Commission.
The county commissioners terminated Edwards last May. The action came after the commissioners voted to sell the county’s ambulance service to Gold Cross, resulting in the loss of Edwards’ position as lieutenant over the department. Edwards had served in the sheriff’s office for 23 years.
At the time, Sheriff Mark Gower argued against the commissioners’ decision. He maintained that since the ambulance department came under his direction, Edwards was still his employee therefore giving him the sole right to decide his fate.
The commissioners, however, disagreed. They stated there was no place available for Edwards in the sheriff’s office and to keep him employed would require the creation of a new position and budgetary adjustments. As custodians over the county’s purse strings, the commissioners said they had the right to let him go.
Gower said he submitted a plan at the time that would allow Edwards to retain employment without costing the county additional funding, but the commission still refused.
“It didn’t matter what I did,” he said. “I made it work and they still didn’t want to keep him. They were gunning for him from the beginning.”
Edwards appealed the decision to the county’s Career Service Council who ruled in his favor and ordered the county to reinstate him. The county commissioners appealed to 5th District Court and are still waiting for a decision.
After Edwards won his case with the council, the Iron County Commission sent his name to the Utah Attorney General’s office asking they investigate him for misuse of public monies while director over the ambulance.
Sgt. Nic Johnson with the Iron County Sheriff’s Office said this the was “number one reason” they chose to join the union.
“What they did to Jody made everyone scared for their jobs,” Johnson said. “[The commissioners] retaliated against him for challenging them over the sale of the ambulance, and then he fought their decision to terminate him and it made them mad. No one has the right to challenge them, and if they do, they retaliate. The guys at the sheriff’s office are scared that the same thing is going to happen to them the first time they say something the commissioners don’t like. No one should have to work under those conditions and in fear every day that if we get out of line we’re going to be fired. We don’t answer to the commissioners. We answer to the sheriff, yet they act like we answer to them.”
Union representative Justin Miller was slated to address the Iron County Commission on Monday, Oct. 12, with a resolution for them to sign acknowledging the right of the employees to collectively bargain. However, on Friday, Oct. 9, the commissioners made some changes to the agenda, including rescheduling Miller for the following meeting in two weeks and adding the approval of their own resolution opposing the deputies’ decision to unionize and their request to collectively bargain.
Miller said he is not surprised, saying he was prepared for something like this to happen.
“We expected this,” he said. “And this is fine because it just proves what’s happening and the commissioners’ unwillingness to work with the sheriff’s office and to correct the problems. They won’t even have a conversation. This just shows the public even more that there is a problem.”
Johnson said the commissioners’ actions are indicative of larger issues in Iron County that began more than a year ago with several policy changes passed by the Commission that have stripped the sheriff of his powers one by one.
“After Jody won his case with the career service council, they passed a policy making it so all exempt employees can no longer appeal a decision of termination to the council,” he said. “They didn’t like the outcome of the council’s decision so they changed the policy. Per policy, they can also now cherry pick one person under RIF and fire them. They also have changed policy making it so the sheriff can’t discipline his own guys without first going through the [Iron] County Attorney and human resources. These are only two of many that have been passed this last year that give the commissioners more power and take away the power of the sheriff.”
Johnson said that while many people will think the decision to unionize is about money, nothing could be further from the truth.
“The public doesn’t have the background, and they don’t know a lot of what has gone on for almost two years. Is money a factor? Absolutely, but it is not what’s motivating us,” Johnson said. “We saw what happened with Lt. Edwards, and we have seen the commissioners take away the sheriff’s authority down to where he can’t make a unilateral move in his office without their say so. We have seen the policy changes one by one. And if it’s not all bad enough, we now have a policy that allows them to change any policy they want at any time. So if they don’t like one or one doesn’t fit what they want to do, they have the right to change it.”
During a two-hour meeting several months ago between Miller and Iron County Sheriff’s Office employees, there was no discussion about wages or joining the union for more money. Instead, employees described a working environment of fear and retaliation. Miller said that nowhere does the fear these employees have stand out more than in the fact that Iron County deputies were the ones to reach out to him first asking for help.
“What makes Iron County unique is that [the union] had absolutely no organizers on the ground. They reached out to us,” he said. “The first time we heard from them was an email we received stating, ‘we need help.’ The deputies have also done all the work to organize this. I’ve been there a few times to answer questions, but other than that they have done it all.”
“It wasn’t easy either,” he added, “especially in rural Utah where the sentiment is largely conservative and anti-union.”
Gower said he has tried reaching out to the Commission over the last few months but to no avail. An example of this is an email Lt. Del Schlosser recently sent to Commissioner Dale Brinkerhoff—the liaison between the sheriff’s office and the commissioners—requesting a meeting between Schlosser, Brinkerhoff, the human resource director Leslie Bishop and the sheriff.
Brinkerhoff responded to Schlosser’s request by saying he had no interest in meeting if it was going to be a “bitch session.” He asked Schlosser for a list of agenda items and questions they wanted to discuss. Schlosser immediately sent that information over, but the commissioner still has not confirmed a time to meet.
Gower said he also tried addressing the Commission a few months ago during their meeting; however, similar to what happened with Miller, Gower was notified the Friday before the Monday meeting that the Commission had removed him from the agenda.
In his case, Gower said he had prepared some information about wages to go over with the commissioners. At the time, the County had hired a consultant to conduct a wage study, and Gower felt the information he had gathered would help; however, the commissioners sent him an email stating they didn’t feel he “had anything of value to add to the conversation at this time.”
Johnson said he felt that the commissioners treat Gower like he is an employee of Iron County, as if Gower was appointed to his position and not elected.
“It’s ridiculous,” Johnson said. “He is their equal, and they treat him with no respect. Not only is he elected, but he won this last election against an opponent garnering more votes than anyone else running, including the commissioners who ran unopposed.”
The contention between the sheriff’s office and the commission is not a public secret. Gower said since before the sale of the ambulance, issues were coming to the surface making it more and more difficult to work together.
“They don’t recognize my authority in any capacity,” he said. “And they have systematically taken the power of the sheriff’s office and completely absorbed it into the commission.”
Gower said the issues don’t stop with the commissioners but extend to the Iron County Attorney’s office. He said he joined his employees in signing up with the union in order to have access to legal counsel.
“I have no legal counsel at this point,” he said. “The county attorney’s office is the commissioner’s attorney, and they’re not available to me. The county attorney’s office is who drafted all the policies, and they represented the commissioners in terminating Lt. Edwards. So if I need help, who am I going to go to?”
Gower said the commissioners have exempted three of his employees, four with Edwards without properly following the law. Exempt employees cannot claim overtime and are considered at-will, meaning they can be terminated without cause.
In each case, Gower said the commission made the decision to exempt the employees before taking the decision to the career service council who is required under Utah code 17-33-8 to hold a public hearing before exempting the employee. The same law also prevents any employee that is a captain or below from being exempt. Yet in all cases, the officers were lieutenants.
“And they did it all under the watch of the county attorney’s office who never said a word,” he said.
Miller said this issue is one of his top priorities to address.
Johnson said morale in the sheriff’s office has never been lower than it is now, and while wages were not the driving force for the sheriff’s office to join the union, it was a factor for several reasons.
The research Gower had planned to go over with the commissioners before he was pulled from the agenda shows that the Iron County Sheriff’s Office is the lowest paid law enforcement agency in the county.
Gower said this affects his ability to recruit quality officers and to retain them. Every time he has to train a new officer, it costs the county $30,000.
“It adds up after a while, and that money could be used for better things than training if we could retain employees,” Gower said, “but as long as we aren’t willing to pay a decent wage, we’re going to continue losing good men and women to other law enforcement agencies.”
Gower’s study also shows that at a starting wage of around $15 an hour, which is what his deputies come in at, many of his officers qualify for government assistance such as food stamps. The administrative staff start at approximately $11 an hour, lower than anyone else he polled throughout the state.
“That is unacceptable,” Gower said. “These men and women put their life on the line for this community every day yet they can’t afford to even pay for food for their families. It’s unacceptable.”
Johnson said while financial fears weigh heavy on anyone not making enough to cover their living expenses, for an officer it’s different.
“This isn’t McDonalds, where if you’re thinking about your money problems while you’re working you might mess up the fries,” Johnson said. “If an officer has to be worried about how he is going to put food on the table or pay his mortgage, it’s going to affect how he performs his job and could cost him or someone else their life.”
According to Gower’s report, his employees have not received a cost of living raise since 2003.
“Meanwhile the commissioners voted themselves in a $6,000 raise this year,” Johnson said.
While the commissioners did approve a $6,000 raise for themselves at the beginning of 2015, they reversed that decision in March after receiving public criticism.
In addition, a recent government records request to the county by Johnson and several other deputies exposed inconsistencies in how employees in the sheriff’s office are paid. An example of this is Dep. Eric Anderson, one of the highest paid employees in the sheriff’s office. The record shows Anderson makes $26.37 an hour, $2.63 more than Johnson, who is a sergeant, and just $3.14 less than Schlosser, one of only three lieutenants.
“It’s absolutely crazy,” Johnson said. “We have sergeants who aren’t making as much as the guys they’re over. We have deputies making more than sergeants, and corporals and corporals making more than sergeants. We have deputies making almost as much as lieutenants with only a $3 an hour difference while I, as a sergeant of 18 years behind me in the sheriff’s office make $6 less than lieutenants. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to how we’re paid.”
Since the Iron County Commission has said they will not sit down at the table to negotiate issues with the union, Miller said he will now take the fight to the streets in the form of a public campaign to build support throughout the community.
“This is where we get to go out and talk with the community and let them know what’s going on and what has happened up to this point that has led us here,” he said. “While the Commission may not want to acknowledge their right to organize, it is a constitutional right and one that they are exercising.”
Commissioner Dave Miller declined to comment at this time. Brinkerhoff and Commissioner Alma Adams could not be reached for comment.