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Attorneys and investigators working for the Yellowstone County Public Defender’s Office want to join Teamsters Local 190.

If their quest to organize succeeds, the Public Defender’s Office would become the second Yellowstone County legal organization to be represented by the Teamsters. Last year, Yellowstone County’s deputy attorneys joined Teamsters Local 190 in February in hopes of negotiating higher pay and better working conditions.

In August, attorneys went on strike for two days before agreeing to a five-year labor contract.

The Board of Personnel Appeals from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry has notified Yellowstone County that it has received two petitions for having the Teamsters represent the public defender’s office.

One petition asks that the Teamsters represent six deputy public defenders. The other petition seeks to organize three investigators working for the department.

Officials from Teamsters Local 190 couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Sandy Selvey, Yellowstone County’s chief public defender, said he wouldn’t be involved in the proposed bargaining unit because he’s considered management. But public defenders began talking seriously about seeking union representation after Yellowstone County commissioners began discussing privatizing the department.

Commission Chairman Jim Reno said saving money for taxpayers was one reason for investigating privatization.

“When the commissioners started talking about doing it as cheap as possible, people here hit the panic button,” Selvey said Tuesday.

If the union succeeds in organizing the public defender’s office, growing case loads for public defenders probably would be a topic of contract negotiations, Selvey said. Public defenders typically handle more than 100 active cases per year, he said.

“They’ll want to bargain for a lot of the same kinds of things that the county attorneys got,” he noted.

During a Tuesday morning discussion, Reno said commissioners must decide whether they prefer having the public defenders included in the same bargaining unit as the county prosecutors. Commissioners also must decide whether they prefer bargaining with investigators separately from the attorneys, Reno said.

Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at thoward@billingsgazette.com

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