Attorneys Union Meeting Reveals ‘Deep Division’ on Admin Leave, Union Leadership

The Government Attorneys Association (GAA) held a special meeting Friday, and sources tells San Jose Inside that if the county attorneys agreed upon anything, it’s that a “deep division” exists amongst the membership.

On Thursday, Luke Leung, from the office of County Executive Jeff Smith, sent a letter to District Attorney Jeff Rosen and the GAA leadership, notifying them that the county intended to claw back any bankable vacation time obtained through an accounting loophole. For the last two years, Rosen has granted about 15 supervising deputy district attorneys (SuDDAs) additional administrative leave, saving them vacation time that could then be cashed out at a later date. Rosen’s accounting sidestep to grant SuDDAs admin leave was done in an effort to make up for an additional 5 percent in concessions by top prosecutors, which the union agreed to in collective bargaining with the county.

The admin leave issue is now under civil investigation by the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris, but sources within the county and GAA membership seem to think that Harris will find Rosen’s actions legal—while not exactly giving him a ringing endorsement. (An actual endorsement in 2014 could also be up in the air.)

What’s more intriguing, though, are the potential consequences of the GAA’s attempts to score fleeting political points.

The extra 5 percent in concessions made by SuDDAs will no longer be in effect starting July 1, yet the GAA’s outcry over Rosen’s actions in April has now led the county to institute an annual cap of 40 hours on admin leave. The GAA board approved of that decision, which, some members say, is an indication that the union leadership doesn’t understand the need for admin leave. Whether an attorney works in the DA’s office, the public defender’s office, the alternative defender’s office or child support services, many often go well beyond working 40 hours per week, and SuDDAs often serve on-call on the weekends. Admin leave is usually granted to strike a balance. (The issue of how pervasive admin leave is granted within the county as a whole is worth a look.)

What seems apparent is that the GAA leadership and union president Max Zarzana overplayed their hand in attempts to discredit Rosen. The union went as far to label Rosen a criminal from the start of its coordinated media blitz with NBC Bay Area—the Mercury News also quickly jumped into the fray—but the plan to attack the DA could now affect previous and future earnings of all GAA members, as well as future earnings of members in the county’s other seven unions.

Sources within the DA’s office have labeled the union’s aggressive stance in the media as a smokescreen, deflecting attention away from a more common union grievance—heavy-handed discipline of members. More so than his predecessor, Dolores Carr, Rosen has taken a firm approach to reprimanding prosecutors who have withheld evidence or broken other procedures. There are also suspicions within the DA’s office that Zarzana and his right-hand man in the GAA, prosecutor and union treasurer Kevin Smith, have been looking for a change in leadership, and their attempts to discredit Rosen have been made in conjunction with efforts to recruit prosecutor Chuck Gillingham Jr. into running for DA in 2014.

Zarzana, who sources tell San Jose Inside has the nickname “min” in the DA’s office, thanks to his approach to accepting minimum plea deals to quickly move cases off of his desk, was elected several years ago as president of the board. A right-wing conservative who has at times rubbed people the wrong way for his outspoken criticism of same-sex marriage, Zarzana at first glance is an unusual suspect for a partner of organized labor. (Although, he and Smith, also said to be conservative, managed to waste money in last November’s election similar to the Police Officers Association. Why the GAA spent more than $64,000 of their members’ dues on the Rose Herrera-Jimmy Nguyen council race is still a mystery.)

Like the leadership of all unions, Zarzana is tasked with negotiating the best deal for his members. But when taking a look at what’s occurred in the last few months, the GAA president appears to have made some severe miscalculations.

Zarzana’s attacks on Rosen not only publicly tarnished the integrity of the entire DA’s office, according to several sources within the GAA, but the drumbeat also compelled the county to cap admin leave at 40 hours. Zarzana also nudged Smith, a tentative ally throughout this process, to request prosecutors pay back any extra pay they received through admin leave. This doesn’t even mention the outrage felt by the county’s other unions, which now see their admin leave under the microscope.

This last detail is especially interesting. Smith has stated repeatedly that the DA’s decision to grant admin leave could trigger a “me-too clause,” which would re-open negotiations with all the unions if $75 million in cost savings are not met. This could potentially require negotiations for retroactive pay to some county employees. This is unlikely—as only two people have cashed out any vacation time as a result of the admin leave giveaway; the effect will likely be seen in future years—but it’s Smith’s prerogative to worry about the budget, and his displeasure with Rosen’s actions have some basis. Why Zarzana cares one iota about other unions’ plights is odd and possibly a disservice to his own unions’ members.

A union is designed to protect its members and get the best possible deal in beenfits and salary, and, in the last few months, Zarzana has taken steps to accomplish the exact opposite. Not only has he capped potential earnings for prosecutors, many of whom use admin leave as vacation time and then vacation time as a bankable asset, but Zarzana’s publicity push could now result in some of his members actually losing vacation time back to the county.

While Friday’s special meeting had no vote by members, just getting it on the calendar proved to be a battle of wills. Several sources told San Jose Inside that Zarzana initially ignored requests for the meeting and has rebuffed attorneys seeking status updates by claiming that the individuals couldn’t be trusted because they were “aligned.”

None of this is to say that all of Zarzana’s complaints are without merit. But as one GAA member told San Jose Inside after the meeting, “There’s a very deep schism in the union, and I don’t know if it can be repaired.”

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

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