Paramedics' suit allowed to proceed Group of officers says administration bill is part of vendetta

June 26, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

The Gary administration has failed to head off a federal lawsuit filed by a group of Anne Arundel paramedics that accuses top county officials of orchestrating a political vendetta against them.

A federal judge in Baltimore refused Monday to dismiss the month-old case, forcing the Republican administration to spend months and more taxpayers' money to defend itself against another lawsuit brought by its employees.

The ruling comes six months after 128 Anne Arundel paramedics won a federal judgment for back overtime pay that could cost the county $3 million. The administration has challenged the decision in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Now 20 paramedics -- all captains or lieutenants -- say that recent administration bills designed to cut personnel costs are political retaliation for their January victory and an attempt to weaken Anne Arundel's only union representing firefighters.

As a result, the paramedics asked U.S. District Judge Walter E. Black to prevent the council from voting on a bill Monday night that has been cast by labor leaders as an attempt to gut the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1563. The 550-member bargaining unit includes paramedics.

Judge Black refused to block the council vote, which will make formal the council's impasse decision reached last month. But he did allow the paramedics' suit to proceed.

"This is a blatant attempt to bust the union," said Frances J. Collins, the Baltimore lawyer representing the paramedics. "And it's vindictive."

The pending administration bill would remove 100 captains and lieutenants from the firefighters' bargaining unit on the grounds that they are managers. As a result, they would be ineligible for overtime pay beginning Monday, the start of the new fiscal year.

The bill also would bar the unrepresented captains and lieutenants from coordinating lobbying efforts with the I.A.F.F. on legislative matters. "Frankly, they couldn't even play softball together under this bill," Collins said.

The administration characterized the lawsuit as unfounded and an overreaction.

absolutely absurd to think this is retaliation," said Lisa Ritter, spokeswoman for County Executive John G. Gary. "This policy is consistent with all other policies in the county that prohibit supervisors and employees from being in same bargaining unit."

Last year, Anne Arundel spent $1.2 million on overtime pay to fire captains and lieutenants. A bill to authorize $875,000 in "bonus pay" for those employees is expected to win council approval Monday.

By a 5-2 vote, the Republican-controlled council endorsed removing the captains and lieutenants from the I.A.F.F. bargaining unit during impasse hearings last month. Only North County Democrats George F. Bachman and James E. DeGrange are expected to oppose the administration bill on Monday. They will likely support the bonus pay proposal.

The Gary administration has spent a lot of time in court recently -- mainly defending itself against its own employees. On June 4, a federal judge invalidated an administration effort to roll back pension benefits paid to former Anne Arundel employees as unconstitutional. Gary, a Republican, vowed to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Last month, the council settled months of bitter labor negotiations between an administration that has made a crusade of cutting personnel costs and public-safety unions that have not had a raise for three years. Council members sided with the administration on most major points.

Gary, who campaigned for personnel reform, has said voters asked for smaller government by electing him and four Republican council members two years ago. Pay and benefits account for 75 percent of the county's annual spending.

As a result, the administration has pushed -- and won -- a series of personnel bills in recent months. Gary has already tied future employee pay raises to on-the-job performance, and is now lobbying for a pension reform bill that would recast Anne Arundel's $750 million retirement system.

His critics have called it too much, too soon for the county's 3,500 employees to handle. But the administration maintains that the reform is necessary for the county to continue operating with a balanced budget under the voter-approved tax ceiling.

Pub Date: 6/26/96

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