The way the County Council votes tomorrow night on a seemingly routine in-house bill may tell a lot about the shape of political power here in the next four years.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray will have a chance to enhance his image as a partisan Democrat; Republicans Darrel Drown and Charles C. Feaga will have their first opportunity to show loyalty to Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker; and Ecker can flex his muscle by threatening a sure-fire veto.
On the past council, Gray's support for the initiatives of then-County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo, a fellow Democrat, appeared to some party members to be so little so late that they questioned Gray's loyalty.
Gray replied that his confrontational approach to the administration was a legislator's proper role. But he was clearly stung by the criticism, and since his re-election has been showing off his Democratic colors at every opportunity. As author of a pro-labor bill opposed by Republicans, he has created yet another chance.
Ironically, Republicans Drown and Feaga seem to be helping Gray by dusting off the old political stereotypes of pro-management Republicans vs. pro-labor Democrats.
Gray's bill would limit county supervisors in citing employees for abuse of sick leave. The current law requires employees to furnish a doctor's excuse if they are absent three consecutive days. But some supervisors are requiring doctor's notes for shorter absences, Gray said.
His bill, supported by the 300-member union of blue-collar county government workers, would prevent supervisorsfrom requiring a doctor's excuse for less than three consecutive days of sick leave. It would also require supervisors to have conferences with employees when sick-leave abuse is suspected. Sick-leave abuseis described as a "pattern" of absences.
The council vote on the bill and the executive's possible veto decision will be played out against the backdrop of contract negotiations that are soon to begin with the four county government unions -- blue-collar, corrections, police and fire.
"All we want is fair treatment -- for the county to meet us half-way," blue-collar union president Al White said. "A happy work force is a productive work force."
The bill is needed, White said, because some managers unfairly accuse employees of abusing sick leave, and many workers feel that if they make a complaint, their supervisors will retaliate. Employees don't go over bosses' heads, hesaid, because "management tends to agree with management."
Drown doesn't buy that argument.
"I'm going to have some real problems with this bill," he said. "In my experience, I've found that most employees are good employees, and most supervisors are good supervisors."To take away supervisors' discretionary power would create unnecessary problems, he said.
Feaga agreed. "The people I've talked to speak pretty well of their supervisors," he said. On the other hand, government has been "pretty lax" about monitoring employee leave time, he said.
"With times as tough as they are, (the county) ought to bea little more restrictive about the hours (employees) put in," Feagasaid. He said he would like to see the 35-hour week some employees work increased to a 40-hour week.
Feaga said that if Gray's bill passes, it might not rate a veto from Ecker, but if Ecker exercised one, Feaga would vote to sustain it. Since four of the five council votes are needed to override a veto, Ecker can kill any bill he wants if the votes follow party lines -- Democrats Gray, Paul Farragut and Shane Pendergrass on one side and Republicans Drown and Feaga on the other.
At Wednesday night's work session on the bill, Gray's Democratic colleagues gave no indication as to whether that would happen. They remained silent on his bill.
Although the Ecker administration characterized Gray's bill as unnecessary and unwanted, Ecker says a veto is not his preference. He says he prefers instead to negotiate solutions with council members. If Gray's bill passes, Ecker said he would talk with Gray to learn Gray's intentions before deciding whether a veto is appropriate.