Council to Tackle Binding Arbitration Tonight
Republican Councilman Walker says bill will pass; Union says it would take county to court.
Anne Arundel County is embroiled in a dispute between public sector employees and county legislators. A bill before the County Council could drastically change the balance of power in labor disputes between unions and the county.
The legislation, Bill 4-11, would give the County Council the final say in disputes between public sector unions and the county. Currently, an independent arbitrator mediates negotiations that reach an impasse.
At the last contentious and lengthy council meeting, more than 60 police officers, firefighters, and first-responders testified against the bill.
Prior to that meeting, some thought the legislation was poised to pass.
Councilman Jerry Walker of Gambrills (R-District 7) introduced an amendment that garnered the four votes needed for adoption, effectively delaying a vote until tonight's council meeting.
The amendment made the bill emergency legislation, meaning it will take effect immediately upon passage — normal legislation is enacted 45 days after passage—however, it also means Bill 4-11 needs the approval of five council members, instead of the usual four votes needed for non-emergency legislation.
Even though the bar is now set higher by way of the need for a fifth vote, Walker doesn't see it as a complication.
"It will pass on Monday night, even with the required five votes," Walker said. "I'm hopeful that we'll see a 7-0 vote."
He sees the bill as a necessity that will bring the power of the purse back to the county council. Currently, in disputes over wages and benefits, both public employees and the county are legally bound to abide by the final decision of an independent arbitrator. The process has only been used four times since it's inception in 2002, and the arbitrator has sided with the county on all four occasions.
However, Walker believes an unelected official shouldn't have the last say when it comes to the county's coffers.
"The purpose is to unbind the county council," said Walker. "We are the final fiscal authority, and currently we have to submit to what an independent arbitrator decides."
County Executive John Leopold, whose office drafted the legislation and is pushing hard for its passage, echoed the same sentiment.
"In this austere era of constrained fiscal growth, I'm not willing to throw the dice," said Leopold in a phone interview. "Even one unfavorable arbitration would be devastating."
An Organized Opposition
Not everyone agrees.
More than one hundred police officers, firefighters and first responders showed up at last week's council meeting, and more than 60 testified in opposition to the legislation. So many people came that the fire marshal had to cut off the flow of people into the council chambers because the room had reached maximum capacity. People who wanted to leave momentarily were issued passes that allowed them re-entry.
One of those organizing the fight against Bill 4-11 is O'Brien Atkinson, president of Anne Arundel County's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. Atkinson contests that if the bill passes, public sector employees will lose one of their bargaining chips.
"We believe that unbinding the council … effectually removes binding arbitration for our public safety employees," Atkinson said.
Opponents of the bill argue that in addition to crippling their ability to negotiate, the bill, as written, is in direct conflict with the Anne Arundel County Charter, which gives public sector employees the right to binding arbitration with the county. In addition, a referendum giving public employees binding arbitration was overwhelming passed in 2002 when over 80 percent of county voters approved the measure.
Walker said that he plans to introduce an amendment tonight that will lay questions of legality to rest.
"I feel there are issues with the bill that are in conflict with the charter," said Walker. "I want to clear that up with an amendment I will introduce Monday."
Union leaders have vowed to take the county to court if any version of Bill 4-11 is adopted into law.
"All of the public safety employee groups have agreed that we will take this matter to court should Bill 4-11 pass," Atkinson said. "We don’t believe that the county is concerned about that. They have attorneys on staff who will be able to drag this battle out until we have a new administration."
Additionally, opponents of the bill argue that a seven-member body would be overturning the will of the people, if the legislation is passed.
"Eighty percent of the population voted for this arbitration," said Sgt. T.J. Smith of the Anne Arundel County Police Department at last week's public hearing. "You guys are trying to give something away that we need, and they voted for."
Police officers and firefighters weren't the only ones who showed up to voice their concern either. Del. Pam Beidle (D-Linthicum) testified before the council and Del. Bob Costa (R-Deale, Davidsonville), a firefighter by trade, stoically sat with his colleagues in a symbolic gesture of support.
Regardless of how resolute the opposition is, the bill's fate will eventually come down to the seven-member council, and whether or not five of the members can come to an agreement on the legislation.
Since proponents of the bill now need a fifth legislator to vote "yes," that most likely means one of the three Democrats on the council will have to cross party lines and support the measure.
Currently, the bill is supported by Council Chairman Dick Ladd (R-District 5) of Severna Park, Councilman John Grasso (R-District 2) of Glen Burnie, Councilman Derek Fink (R-District 3) of Pasadena and Walker —all of whom are Republicans.
First-term Councilman Chris Trumbauer (D-District 6) of Annapolis said he doesn't support the current bill, and hasn't seen any of the proposed amendments yet.
However, he does think a compromise could be reached.
"I can envision the council coming up with a compromise that we would all be able to support, but I don't think we are there yet," Trumbauer said. "I remain hopeful that we will work together to make some positive changes to this bill."
When asked about who the wild card Democrat might be, Walker remained tight-lipped.
"Let's wait until Monday and see," Walker said.