Two of the most outspoken critics of the Howard County Police Department are being challenged in police union elections that end tomorrow in a vote that some officers fear could leave top police officials in virtual control ofTheir two challengers, meanwhile, acknowledge that they would like to improve the union's often contentious relations with the department's management.
"I have a good working relationship with the command staff," said Bill Block, the secretary candidate who has worked in the Police Department's research and planning office for five years -- a job that places him inside Howard Police Chief James N. Robey's administrative offices.
"I'm comfortable with them," Mr. Block said of the department's leadership. "They're comfortable with me. I may be thought of as a management boy, but I'll work very hard for police officers."
Presidential candidate John Paparazzo, the union vice president, also endorsed better union-management relations, saying it could help the union get more benefits.
But some county police officers -- including many who refused to be named because they fear it might hurt their careers -- say the election of Mr. Block and Mr. Paparazzo could harm the department's largest advocacy group for officers in its contract talks with the county.
"When you go in with a let's-work-with-management approach, you may not come out with everything you are entitled to," said Peter Moskala, a union member who works in the department's training division. "I'm a little leery of that approach. It's like a card game. You don't let them know what your hand is, or you won't win the game."
Results due tomorrow
About 242 -- or 77 percent -- of the department's officers in the Howard County Police Officers Association can vote. The union represents all officers below the rank of sergeant. Results will be tallied tomorrow.
Two other union officers, Treasurer Morris Carroll and vice presidential candidate Bob Castor, are unopposed.
"These elections are very important," Jim Tomlinson, a west Columbia patrol officer, said Tuesday. "The union is a stronghold. Without that, you don't have a lot of power to get changes made."
Contract talks scheduled for next spring are the key concern for most officers. Union officials made modest gains in their negotiations with the county in May, getting 2 percent cost-of-living raises, maximum 2.5 percent merit increases and a minimum of three hours of pay for time spent in court on their days off.
Issues in the next contract talks -- set to begin as early as December -- will focus on improvements in the retirement plan, ++ schedules, benefits and wages.
Some officers said they believe top police officials are trying to gain an advantage in the talks by backing union candidates supportive of management's vision of how the department should be run.
'Have to work together'
Chief Robey did not return phone calls about the issue. But County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who has to approve any contract agreement, said he is not involved in the police union election in any way and doesn't even know all the candidates' names.
"Over the years," Mr. Ecker said, "there've been hard-liners and the opposite, but we still have to work together, and we find a way to do it."
The candidates offer opposite approaches on how to proceed with negotiations, though arguing that their ends are similar.
"I'm a strong-headed Irish guy from New York -- loud and outspoken," said Mr. Fitzgerald, the union president and a detective in the department's warrants and fugitives division. "My style is very forceful and it draws attention. Management looks at that as controversial.
"I look out for the benefits of the rank and file. I just try to improve their standard of living. The county looks at getting the most out of the tax dollar it can."
Mr. Paparazzo, his challenger for the presidency, said better relations with management would help the union get what it wants.
"I hope to bring some intelligent dialogue and negotiations to that position," said Mr. Paparazzo, the department's chief firearms instructor. "Those are the key to us being successful."
In a letter to union members, Mr. Paparazzo said, "We must fight wisely." At an August union meeting, he endorsed Mr. Block.
Mr. Block said he would work to alleviate what he calls the animosity between police officials and the union.
Last November, Chief Robey was outraged at the union when signs were put along side roads saying that Howard County police endorsed Mr. Ecker's Democratic challenger. The chief said the signs made it appear as though the department was supporting his boss' competition, when actually the signs reflected a vote by the union's executive board.
Mr. Besseck, the union secretary and the department's auto theft investigator, said he's willing to take unpopular positions if he thinks they will help members.
"Sometimes you're going to have to stand and fight for principles," he said. "Management has a vested interest as to who gets elected. It gives them a better chance to influence decisions within the union. That's true of any union."
Union members say the varying positions offered by the candidates could ultimately harm the union. "It's like night and day between the two of them," said Mr. Moskala. "I'm not convinced either way is really the best way."