Union big to run supervisor's office after all

Related story: "The 28 labor-states"

Government union exerts labor-state political control

Rumors flew rampant during San Bernadino (CA) County supervisor-elect Neil Derry's campaign that he would hire former sheriff's deputies union leader Jim Erwin as his chief of staff. Derry denied it, saying he hadn't made up his mind. Those remarks now appear coy and disingenuous.

Today, county supervisors will vote on whether to appoint Erwin as Derry's "transition manager/chief of staff." Odds are he'll get the nod. Supervisors typically endorse each other's staff choices, out of respect for peers' autonomy.

Derry admitted Monday that he discussed the chief-of-staff position with Erwin during the campaign.

But he said he didn't officially offer him the job until about two weeks after the election. (He didn't have a job to offer officially until he won the election.)

Derry got generous support from Erwin's former union, the San Bernardino County Safety Employees' Benefit Association. It spent close to $400,000 helping him get elected.

But both Derry and Erwin deny the union's financial support was a quid pro quo to get Erwin the job.

Erwin said he didn't influence the union's support for Derry.

Union President Bill Abernathie said the union was looking for a candidate who could unseat Dennis Hansberger, with whom it hadn't seen with eye-to-eye for years.

As a San Bernardino councilman, Derry was seen as a "known commodity" with a "strong public safety image," Abernathie said. Derry didn't make specific promises, but Abernathie expects Erwin's post as chief of staff will mean an "open-door policy," he said.

Derry said he chose Erwin because he needed someone familiar with the county's "inside politics," who could "run interference" for him and free him to work on policy matters.

But Erwin comes with a lot of baggage in county government, both negative and positive.

His love interest, Elizabeth Sanchez, lost her job as the county's labor negotiator when their romance became public shortly after the union got a new contract. An investigation found the relationship didn't influence negotiations (ha!).

In addition, as union president in the late 1990s, Erwin steered $2.3 million in investments into a volatile bank stock that lost much of its value by 2002, leading the union to suspend his control of its finances.

The investment loss became controversial when Treasurer Dick Larsen tried to hire Erwin as county investment officer in 2005. Larsen quickly withdrew the appointment.

More recently, Erwin assumed kind of a hero's role.

He became a whistle-blower as assistant assessor, telling DA investigators that a public relations consultant hired by Assessor Bill Postmus was openly conducting political business in county offices.

(Also on also today's agenda is a proposal to hire Wanda Nowicki as Derry's administrative analyst. An executive secretary in Postmus' office, she also played a whistle-blower role, telling investigators that Assistant Assessor Adam Aleman ordered her to alter documents subpoenaed by the grand jury. Aleman resigned after being charged with six felonies.)

Board Chairman Paul Biane placed the appointments on the agenda, an irony since it was he who tried to remove Hansberger's chief of staff, Jim Foster, in 2004. Biane didn't return a call seeking comment.


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