Officer is Arundel police's anchor in salary talks

Union leader heads push for equal pay among sergeants

April 09, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Midway through long and complicated negotiations with Anne Arundel County officials and lawyers, Sgt. Bret Ballam made an offer too good to be true.

The president of the sergeants union told the police personnel director that he'd retire if the county gave the sergeants parity with their colleagues in other nearby counties.

The personnel director bit his lip and smiled in earnest consideration, according to other sergeants at the negotiating table.

"I think they wished they could have taken me up on the offer," Ballam recalled.

The exchange was comic relief in otherwise weighty labor talks, but Ballam said he knows why his retirement would be appealing.

For one thing, he's an unapologetic, straightforward negotiator who has made no secret that the union has prepared a media campaign that would cast doubt on county officials' commitment to public safety.

Ballam may not look like a contract negotiator as he drags on a cigarette and sifts through a stack of support letters. Sometimes he wears jeans to do union business and drives a Harley Davidson motorcycle. ("Is there any other kind?" he asks.)

But Ballam also has a formal education in labor negotiations, making him one in a handful of police officers who have become savvy about contract talks.

"The labor movement in public safety is still really in its infancy," says Ballam, a 42-year-old recent graduate of the National Labor College at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies.

Before he went back to school, Ballam said, he "always thought we had to accept what we were given, because there's a no-strike cause."

But he says he learned that public appeals can be effective.

The sergeants union established itself as involved in the community by starting events such as the annual Kids Care program several years ago.

A fund-raiser, Kids Care offers parents the opportunity to have their children fingerprinted.

When Ballam became president last year, he raised the union's profile by running full-page ads in newspapers and sending letters asking residents to lobby county officials for the police.

Ballam earmarked one-quarter of the union's $70,000 annual budget for media affairs. "My goal is that if we come to a resolution, I'd like to divert that money for a media campaign to thank the county executive, County Council and most importantly, the citizens for their support," he said.

The sergeant's association has a tentative agreement with the county that would provide a 5 percent raise each year over the three-year term of the contract. The proposal would also restructure the pay scale so that sergeants at least earn more than the officers they supervise.

"There shouldn't be a pay cut to receive a promotion," said Ballam. "At least, this proposal would correct that problem."

The 72 sergeants in the union are scheduled to vote on the proposed contract Tuesday.

Under the proposed deal, Anne Arundel sergeants would earn 10 percent to 12 percent less than their counterparts in the state police, and in Baltimore and Howard counties, Ballam said.

"But I'm trying to be realistic," he said. "Our pay didn't get to this point in three years. It's unfair to expect to correct it one contract."

Ballam had previously received some criticism for polling members instead of calling for votes on county proposals. But even the former union president, Sgt. William Collier says: "It's always trial and error when you jump into a leadership role. The hardest thing about being president is that you try to do the best you can, but you'll never be able to please everyone."

Sgt. Vaughn Dykes, who also serves on the negotiating team, agrees. "He has a lot on his shoulders. It's more pressure for him. But he has a quick wit and handles it well."

Ballam, who is known for calling his colleagues "my brother" and just about everyone "my friend," has a way of making people feel part of his cause, many sergeants say.

He responds to letters. He gives out his home phone number. And to help members understand how the proposed contract will affect them, Ballam has made sure individual sergeants see what their pay and benefits would be over the next three years.

Union rules give Ballam time from daily shifts to complete some of the union work but he also spends his free time, said Sgt. Stephen McCullen. "He's always doing something. We can't figure out how he gets it all done," McCullen said.

Even one of his opponents during negotiations, county personnel director Randy Schultz, said: "He's knowledgeable. He stays on top of the issues, and he's certainly not bashful about telling us about them."

For Ballam, the passion stems from a lifelong commitment to the police force. His father was an Anne Arundel police officer. Ballam has served for 23 years -- six of them as a sergeant.

During a low point in Ballam's career, he and other officers were disciplined in 1993 for having sex with an informant.

He has since married, and has focused his career on education and advocacy.

"We have a dedicated department -- a lot of them have spent their lives here. They should be treated fairly," said Ballam. "And they should be able to feed their families."

In addition to contract talks, Ballam is involved in lobbying for police-related laws. One such measure is a proposal that would make it a felony to assault officers. Ballam says his next goal is to build stronger coalitions with other labor groups, such as teachers and the Fraternal Order of Police.

"We work better when we work together," Ballam said.

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