Panel wants legal ruling

Opinion sought on status shift of 70 employees last year

`Slapped in the face'

Workers never told reason

they lose benefits, morale low

July 14, 2000|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Hoping to mend relations with local villages, the Columbia Council is trying to shed light on an employee benefits issue so secret that one councilman compared it with Kennedy assassination files.

The council voted unanimously last night to seek a legal opinion on whether it can disclose why village employees were suddenly stricken from the rolls of Columbia Association workers in February 1999. They were told at the time that the reason they could no longer be considered association employees was sensitive but would be disclosed to them. It remains a secret, however.

The council also voted last night to ask legal counsel whether the reason for the change still exists and if the village workers may again become association employees.

The village employees complain that their removal has reduced their health benefits and taken a toll on morale. About 70 part- and full-time employees in nine of Columbia's 10 villages have been affected, village managers said. One village, Long Reach, has directly employed workers for more than 10 years.

Erin Peacock, village manager for Oakland Mills, told the council that the separation has left village workers "feeling slapped in the face."

Despite promises that their benefits packages would be identical to those enjoyed by association employees, the village workers no longer have the same medical and dental coverage, she and other village managers said.

"We don't believe residents would wish to discriminate against village employees," she said.

Councilman Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance said that village workers deserve an explanation. He made the motion, which passed unanimously after some debate, that the legal opinions be sought.

Councilman Adam Rich of River Hill questioned whether the legal advice was necessary because nearly a year and a half has passed since the workers were separated.

"Like the Kennedy assassination papers, there's no longer a need to keep it confidential," Rich said. "What do we need to spend money on another legal opinion for?"

The Columbia Association and its villages -- the community's two branches of government -- had enjoyed good relations for many years, with the association setting policies that affect the whole community and the villages focusing on local concerns.

Chairman Lanny Morrison, of Harper's Choice, said he was more concerned about repairing relations with the villages than revisiting the past.

"To me, rehashing history is not going to be a positive step in the healing process," he said. "What can we do positively to move forward?"

The village workers were made association employees in 1989 to satisfy regulations triggered by the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Until that time, they had been employed by their respective village associations, with the Columbia Association handling salaries and benefits.

While they have not been officially notified of the reason for the separation, village officials said they have been told privately that the impetus was a tax issue.

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