PBA files unfair labor lawsuit against Watson

The North Central Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA) filed a lawsuit on Friday against Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson for what it claims are unfair labor practices.  

With the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) ending on Dec. 31, both the PBA and Watson are at a standstill at the negotiating table.

Two of the main sticking points include take-home vehicle policy for Alachua County Sheriff’s Office employees who live outside the county and the 2.5 percent step-increase pay raise that, according to the previous CBA, was to take effect for all eligible members on Oct. 1, 2021.

On Monday, North Central Florida PBA president Jody Branaman publicly released a letter to Watson and a copy of the lawsuit.

PBA North Central Florida President Jody Branaman

“In the wake of Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr.’s repeated violations of Florida labor law and his continued failure to negotiate in good faith, the North Central Florida PBA has filed an Unfair Labor Practice against the Sheriff with the Public Employees Relations Commission [PERC],” Branaman wrote. “Our lawsuit contains an abundance of clear evidence of a continued pattern to deny our contractual rights, while also seeking to divide our membership.”

Branaman pointed to the Oct. 1 step increase and called on Watson to stop communicating directly with the ACSO employees, which he did when he sent a letter on March 9.

“The purpose of this legal action is to demand that PERC compel the Sherriff [sic] to take the following immediate actions: to begin negotiating in good faith, to cease from direct dealings with our members, to immediately pay our Sheriff Deputies the 2.5% step increase, which they are legally entitled to with interest, and to discontinue from making unilateral changes to our working conditions without proper negotiations,” Branaman wrote in his Monday release. “If the Sheriff is unwilling to comply with our demands, we’re confident that PERC will.”

In response to a request for comment, ACSO spokesperson Capt. Kaley Behl told Mainstreet Daily News that the sheriff’s general counsel was still reviewing the suit as of Monday night, so Watson could not comment.

The PBA initially filed a class action grievance on March 2 in a letter sent by PBA general counsel Stephanie Webster. The correspondence from Webster indicated Watson’s bargaining team refused a CBA proposal presented by the PBA on Jan. 25 and that Watson’s team would not budge from its position.

Webster’s March 2 letter characterized Watson’s position as an unfair labor practice and that an additional meeting on Feb. 24 proved unproductive because his team presented the same CBA articles the PBA previously voted down. It cited the vehicle take-home policy and unpaid Oct. 1 step increase as the main sticking points. 

Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr.

According to Webster’s letter, the budgeting and accounting department processed the step increase on Feb. 25, but on Feb. 28 Watson instructed the department to reverse the step increase again, which Webster stated was a violation of the CBA.     

Watson addressed the vehicle take-home policy in a letter to ACSO members on March 9.

“We have simplified the take-home vehicle policy (ACSO 223) by automatically grandfathering in those who relied on past take-home vehicle policy, including even those who were outside the range of past policy,” he wrote. “In order to balance the budget for raises and release our employees from the convoluted 2020 take-home vehicle policy, you will see the policy is now similar to what we’ve seen here for decades, requiring employees to live within Alachua County if they wish to take their agency vehicle home.”

Watson argued that the geographic requirement “is common among law enforcement agencies, some of which have eliminated take-home options or started charging employees to take vehicles home.” He said it serves the public interest and reduces fleet and fuel costs.

The PBA lawsuit said, “the current CBA provides that bargaining unit members with ‘marked’ cars can only take their patrol vehicle home if the member(s) resides outside of Alachua County within a ten (10) mile radius of the Alachua line” and that “members with ‘unmarked’ patrol cars can take their patrol car home if they reside in a county contiguous to Alachua County providing their residence is no further than twenty (20) minutes from the Alachua line, or one (1) hour from the ACSO headquarters.”

According to the lawsuit, some deputies choose to live outside the county because it “ranks as the thirteenth highest county for taxes in the State of Florida.” It also said the ACSO is the 36th lowest of 67 counties in the state for deputy starting pay.

Watson has previously stated that he is negotiating in good faith and making decisions in the best interest of Alachua County citizens. 

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