Bill would let Vt. deputies, prosecutors unionize, but raises logistical concerns

Thursday March 14, 2013

MONTPELIER -- With an annual salary of $42,390 last year and about $180,000 in law school loans, Sarah George, a deputy state’s attorney in Chittenden County, told a legislative panel she’s working a second job as a waitress to make ends meet.

But three or four times a year, she’s forced to skip her usual three weekend shifts at the upscale Simon Pearce restaurant in Quechee -- where the sirloin entree fetches $33 -- to be an on-call prosecutor, responding to crime scenes in Burlington.

In a letter to a Vermont House committee that on Wednesday discussed allowing deputy state attorneys like her to unionize, George said she can "make more money in those two days than I do all week as an attorney for the State of Vermont."

The legislation under consideration by the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee would also allow deputy sheriffs and support staffs in their offices to join a union and engage in collective bargaining.

The panel also heard from officials who, while sympathetic to the plights of their staff members, raised logistical concerns about forming a bargaining unit of the state workers’ union in the sheriffs’ and states’ attorneys’ offices.

George’s boss, T.J. Donovan, said he supported the right of the employees to unionize but worried about them negotiating a statewide contract with the executive committee of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.

"I don’t know the values, nor can I impose my values, on a different county about pay, about benefits, about time off," Donovan said. He also questioned whether Chittenden County, by far Vermont’s largest and holder of its busiest criminal docket, would have enough clout on the executive committee.

The 14 sheriffs and 14 state’s attorneys are among the few remaining vestiges of the 14 counties as political subdivisions in a state where civil and criminal courts have been subsumed into the state judicial system.

Each sheriff and state’s attorney is elected within her or his own county, and they’re used to a high degree of autonomy, officials said.

"The sheriffs believe the proposed changes usurp the authority of the elected sheriffs’ offices, places authority with the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs that is not supported by Vermont’s Constitution, and would likely create conflict and expenses at the county level," Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, the president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, told the committee.

It was unclear when the committee might act on the bill. In Vermont’s two-year legislative session, which typically runs from January to May each year, action could be delayed until 2014.


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