County officials have filed an assault complaint with police and are attempting to bar a union leader from future contract negotiations following an alleged altercation during a meeting at the Orange County Employees Assn.'s Santa Ana headquarters last week.
Union officials, however, dispute claims that OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino verbally abused and physically threatened members of the county’s negotiating team, saying that a heated exchange has been blown out of proportion for political reasons.
“I was in the room,” OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir said of the Jan. 8 meeting. “This is just a political stunt.”
Berardino serves on the Orange County Fair Board. The OCEA represents about 200 Costa Mesa city employees.
A Santa Ana Police Department spokesman confirmed that the agency is investigating the incident, which he said was reported Jan. 10.
The spokesman, Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, said that while a detective is in the process of interviewing witnesses, the investigation is in its early stages.
“We don’t know who the suspects are,” he said. “We don’t even know if, in fact, a crime occurred.”
According to witness statements prepared for the county’s human resources director, Berardino launched into a profanity-laden tirade after a negotiator laid out the terms of the county’s final contract proposal.
The county and OCEA, the county’s largest independent public employee union, had been locked in a series of contract negotiations for nearly two years. In making its last contract offer last week, the county gave OCEA members the option to either accept the proposal or enter mediation.
Berardino, the statements say, crumpled up the proposal and threw it in the direction of Bruce Barsook, the county’s negotiator, and told county employees to “get the [expletive] out.”
As the county’s bargaining team started to leave the room, according to the statements, Berardino got up and headed toward Barsook.
Employee relations analyst Karen Hodel wrote that as Berardino approached, he “ripped off his sports coat and assumed what I would call a ‘fighter’s stance.’”
That’s when Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Miller, who serves as the sheriff’s labor relations representative, stepped in and restrained Berardino with the help of an OCEA team member, the statements say.
“It became obvious to me and others that Berardino was preparing to assault Barsook,” Miller wrote.
Muir declined to give a detailed “play by play” but said, “There was absolutely no assault.”
“Did it get heated? Absolutely,” she added.
But it was the county’s bargaining team that “tried to bully and intimidate county workers into accepting a bad deal or risk a worse deal in mediation,” she wrote in an email.
Berardino’s alleged actions, County Executive Officer Mike Giancola wrote in a letter to OCEA President Lezlee Neebe, raised concerns “about the future safety of [county] employees during negotiations with OCEA.”
As a result, he wrote in the letter dated Friday, the county will no longer meet for negotiations at the association’s offices and will provide security during bargaining sessions.
Muir said that keeping Berardino away from future negotiation meetings will probably have little effect, since the union is now in the voting stage.
Berardino could not immediately be reached for comment.