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Free speech at work: not that complicated

 A building with shrubs outside and a sign that says "Mendocino County Public Library."
The main branch of the Mendocino County public library in Ukiah.

The union has filed a complaint with the county over a department head's alleged claim that speaking to the press, library groups and the Board of Supervisors about their concerns could be construed as "insubordination" and a violation of the Brown Act.

Mendocino County’s largest bargaining unit has filed a charge of unfair labor practices with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), accusing the library director of threatening employees and violating labor law. The department head appears to have advised library staff that they could be considered insubordinate if they discuss their concerns with the press, library groups, or the Board of Supervisors. According to the complaint, the county retaliated against a library employee who complained about a new policy at work by changing her classification and removing her from the union.

Patrick Hickey, the field representative for SEIU 1021, referred to the matter at the June 20 Board of Supervisors meeting, when union leadership presented the county with the charge. Union members packed the chambers that morning to advocate for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), which was not included in the recently adopted county budget.

“We have a situation going on right now that you are all aware of,” Hickey said during public comment. “A manager who has threatened employees, lied to community members, violated labor law, sent an email to all staff (saying) that speaking to you, the members of the Board of Supervisors, can be construed as both insubordination and a violation of the Brown Act. The manager claims this information and direction was provided by the County Counsel’s office. I hope that our County Counsel is not providing this sort of dubious advice.”

Deborah Fader Samson is the Director of Cultural Services, which places her at the head of the county museum, its half dozen library branches, and its bookmobile. She was hired in January of 2021. The PERB charge claims that after Ukiah Branch Librarian Melissa Carr complained to the Library Advisory Board and the Friends of the Library about a shortage of workspace, Samson “threatened to change (Carr’s) working conditions…for engaging in protected concerted activity.” Shortly thereafter, in May of 2023, the county changed the classification of Branch Librarian, which is represented by SEIU 1021, to Branch Manager, which is not. In a May 15 letter to CEO Darcie Antle and Deputy CEO Cherie Johnson, Hickey wrote that the union had not had a chance to meet and confer over the change in job classification, adding, “We believe this is a bald attempt at union busting at the Library and intend to vigorously push back on it.”

On June 2, the union sent a petition to the Board of Supervisors, citing a number of complaints about Fader Samson’s management at the library, though it does not appear to have reached all the supervisors. Supervisor Dan Gjerde said he did receive the petition, along with a letter from Barbara Blake of the Ukiah Valley Friends of the Library. He said the letter reads in part that, “Library staff needs to be housed in another place.” Gjerde wrote in a text message that the Board of Supervisors and the CEO decided to move library administration staff into the Ukiah branch from the campus on Low Gap because, “The County is attempting to downsize its footprint of County buildings. The County staff need to work in our County library buildings. There is no extra space for library employees, outside of the library buildings.”

Supervisor Ted Williams said he did not receive the petition, and that the PERB charge was the first he had ever heard of worker dissatisfaction at the library. He noted that workers can’t strike over the lack of a COLA, and expressed concern that the union was using the library issue as a “wedge.”

Supervisor Maureen Mulheren did receive the petition. While she, like her colleagues, refrained from commenting on personnel matters, she said, “When we receive complaints we take them very seriously and look into all of them.” She wanted county employees to know that resources are available to them.

That includes access to supervisors. David Loy, the legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, said in an interview that, “The Supreme Court has specifically upheld the right of public employees to advocate to the governing board…for improvements in their working conditions or for a pay raise or for a contract, or to oppose what the union is asking for.”

Fader Samson appears to have advised staff otherwise. According to notes from a branch managers’ meeting dated June 15, “Deb gave a summary of why the First Amendment at work isn’t always as simple as it sounds and cautioned staff to use the grievance process through their unions rather than sharing concerns with the LAB (Library Advisory Board), FOL (Friends of the Library) groups, newspapers, radio, or the Board of Supervisors as those methods can be construed as insubordination and a violation of the Brown Act.” Though we did not receive metadata with this document, it includes other information about library programs and names of library staff, including Melissa Carr. We are not aware of library personnel other than Fader Samson who use the nickname Deb.

Loy said that, while there are some limits, employees are not restricted solely to the union grievance process when it comes to airing their concerns. “In general, public employees do not surrender their First Amendment rights by working for the government.”

When we contacted Fader Samson on Tuesday, she initially said she would “happily respond to your request for clarification/explanation” on Wednesday or Thursday. She did not respond when we followed up by suggesting times for a recorded interview on both days. County Counsel Christian Curtis did not respond to a question about his advice to Fader Samson about her interpretation of the First Amendment. Williams wrote in a text message that, “Deb was following legal advice, which is her duty, and the legal advice contained a typo. “Is” vs “is not.” ” He later clarified that the mistaken legal advice came from County Counsel’s office, but not from Christian Curtis himself.

The Brown Act mostly applies to elected officials and their conduct of public meetings. But private citizens can violate it through “serial meetings,” where they meet separately in private with multiple members of an elected body and coordinate messages among them in an effort to achieve agreement on an issue.

However, any member of the public is free to address the entire governing body during public comment. Loy said that, in addition to public employees having the right to address the governing body about labor concerns, “They also cannot be deprived of their right to speak to the press or public about similar issues.” After reviewing the notes from the Branch Managers’ meeting, he said, “If that is in fact the library director’s position, that is, in my view, incorrect under the First Amendment, to say the least.” He added that he was “baffled” by the reference to the Brown Act.

Hickey argues that addressing the Board, even during working hours, about union matters, is collective action that is protected by labor law.

The PERB charge claims that three days after the union sent the library workers’ petition to the Board of Supervisors, Kao Saeturn, the head of Mendocino County Human Resources, initiated a new policy that employees who wish to address the Board on union matters must do so on their own time, after providing notice. The charge claims that, “Prior to Saeturn issuing the June 5 memo, the County had a long-standing practice of allowing employees to attend BOS meetings during work time without taking personal accrued leave and without such advanced notice. Saeturn’s new policy allows employees to continue to attend BOS meetings for purposes other than supporting the union,” which they believe is discriminatory.

Williams said he was “keeping an open mind” about the complaint, and that he “would like a fair process,” including education for everyone about the First Amendment. “Now we have this PERB charge,” he said; “and we’ll have to blow a bunch of public money.”

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