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Judge to Weigh Fate Today of O.C. Layoffs : Jobs: Hearing will determine if county managers can dismiss workers without regard to seniority. Decision will affect hundreds of government employees.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The jobs of hundreds of Orange County employees hinge on the outcome of a critical court hearing today, as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John E. Ryan will decide whether county managers can lay off workers at their discretion.

The 9:30 a.m. hearing figures to be lengthy and dramatic, judging by the voluminous court filings from both sides and the parade of anxious workers, accountants, other financial experts and county officials that is expected to appear before Ryan.

Charles D. Axelrod, the county’s chief attorney on labor issues, said the county will have ready seven witnesses for the hearing, including representatives of the Arthur Anderson accounting firm; county financial adviser Salomon Brothers; Sheriff Brad Gates, co-chair of the county’s management committee, and Judy Davis, county chief of employee relations. On Thursday afternoon Axelrod filed with the court some 500 pages of declarations and exhibits from these seven witnesses.

These filings were not immediately available, but the witnesses are expected to support Orange County’s contention that its $1.69-billion investment pool loss constitutes an emergency, and that, as an entity in Chapter 9 bankruptcy, it has the legal right to overturn union contract provisions when implementing layoffs and taking other cost-saving measures.

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In the past two weeks, the county has given layoff notices to 186 workers, without adhering to union seniority rules as spelled out in contracts. A coalition of 10 labor groups representing nearly 16,000 employees sued to block the dismissals on Tuesday, and Judge Ryan halted any layoffs pending today’s hearing.

Marc A. Bellinson, an attorney and spokesman for the labor coalition, said he had not seen seen the county’s court filings by Thursday evening. But Bellinson’s law firm was preparing its own statements for the hearing--specifically, from 10 county workers, all of whom are more than 40 years old, have 10 or more years of service with the county and have recently received layoff notices.

“The county refused to acknowledge that layoffs would cause irrevocable harm to employees,” said Bellinson. “Through these declarations, we’re demonstrating that peoples’ lives will be immediately and irreparably changed by the threat of layoffs.”

In addition, Bellinson expects to call upon several expert witnesses to show that Orange County’s financial problems are not enough to justify the county abandoning seniority rules and other provisions of union contracts. “We believe they are using this situation in essence as an excuse to fire people they don’t like,” he said. “There’s no valid economic reason.”

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Bellinson said that if Judge Ryan rules in favor of the county, his firm would immediately file an appeal and seek an injunction to prevent layoffs. Axelrod said he was unsure what the county’s next step would be if it loses. “Hopefully it ends on Friday,” he said.


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