The Pima County Deputy Sheriff’s Association is taking pay and benefit issues into its own hands, formally unionizing, allowing the organization to negotiate with the county on its own behalf.

The Pima County Deputy Sheriff’s Association is taking pay and benefit issues into its own hands, formally unionizing, allowing the organization to negotiate with the county on its behalf.

“In the past, we always had relied on our sheriff to do our bidding with the board of supervisors for benefits and compensation,” Detective Eric Cervantez, the union’s president, told the Star. “We felt that the time has come to actually speak on our own behalf, so that’s what triggered the meet and confer.”

“There’s a new day coming for labor relations and law enforcement in Pima County,” added Tucson attorney Stephen Portell, who is representing the union.

Portell called the 166-11 vote historic, marking the first time a deputy organization in Pima County has ever had meet and confer rights. The Fraternal Order of Police, another deputy association that has fewer members than the union, is not an official labor union and can’t negotiate on behalf of its members.

Portell said multiple county employees told him they’d been asking deputies for years why they haven’t formally organized and sought out union rights.

The union had been previously represented by attorneys who also represented the department’s command staff, creating a conflict of interest, Portell said. He was hired by the deputies in August 2017 and quickly learned that the last election for a public employees’ union in Pima County was nearly a decade ago, in 2009.

Cervantez said the process was a team effort by the deputy association’s board, Portell and guidance from Pima County Supervisors Chairman Richard Elías.

An agenda item will be added to a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting so that the supervisors can accept the election results, which will allow pay negotiations to begin.

In December, Portell filed a claim against the county on behalf of four deputies, who said they’re owed back pay, having been hired under the now-defunct Step Program, which promised pay increases on an annual basis but stopped delivering those increases in 2008.

The claim proceeded to Pima County Superior Court in February and in June, when Portell sought to amend the claim by adding 116 more deputies and corrections officers as plaintiffs and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry as a defendant.

The lawsuit has been put on hold until February 2019. However, Portell was contacted earlier this week by a member of the Pima County Attorney’s Office to say that the county was willing to discuss resolving the outstanding pay issues.

In September, Portell filed a separate claim against the county, saying the Sheriff’s Department violated Arizona’s overtime and minimum wage laws. A high-ranking department official retaliated against them when they tried to report problems with a payroll processing service.

“I’m a union guy, so I believe in the people’s right to organize,” Elías told the Star. “As long as I’ve been in office, the sheriff’s association has not really had fair representation.

“Hopefully it’ll be good for all of us, because I think the Sheriff’s Department has a lot of important issues that we can work out by talking, instead of having such an acrimonious relationship.”

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I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.