Unions seeking charter change

Amendment would allow arbitrators to determine salaries during impasses

April 21, 2002|By Lynn Anderson and Laura Barnhardt | Lynn Anderson and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Unions representing Anne Arundel County police officers and firefighters are pushing elected officials and members of an advisory committee to change the county charter by allowing an independent arbitrator to step into impasses during contract negotiations and set salaries.

Although county code allows an outside arbitrator to help settle labor disputes, union officials want to tweak the law to make the third-party decision binding.

The issue is to be discussed at a public hearing of the county's Charter Revision Commission tomorrow in Annapolis.

County Executive Janet S. Owens and her administration oppose the change for fear it would usurp power from elected officials and create a budget nightmare because of the county's voter-imposed tax cap.

"We use arbitrators now, but they just make recommendations," said county Personnel Officer Mark W. Atkisson, who testified Monday before the charter commission. "If this goes through, we'd be stuck with [an arbitrator's] decision. ... Elected officials should make these decisions, not someone who lives in D.C. or Virginia."

But officials from nine labor organizations who represent county employees, most of them in law enforcement or fire departments, are lobbying for the change - and winning support from at least some County Council members. The council is to receive a report on recommended changes in June from the charter commission, an advisory group of five residents.

Any charter change supported by a majority of council members would go on the ballot in November.

"We need it now," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police, referring to the binding arbitration proposal. "We've needed [it] for a long time."

A crowd of union members is expected to attend the meeting tomorrow to show support for the proposed charter change.

Commission members are holding off on a final judgment on the union's request, which could have more tangible effects than many of the other proposals it is weighing, until after the hearing. The session is likely to be accented with emotional testimony from police, fire and detention center employees, who say the charter change would make the negotiating process more fair.

Reserving judgment

"I'm going to reserve my opinion until after the public hearing," said Karen Cook, a Riva resident who is one of five commission members. "I want to understand both sides of the argument."

George Mills, another commission member and a former representative for a labor guild at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, said Thursday that he, too, is waiting to hear from employees and county officials.

"I have an open mind until the hearing," said Mills, who lives in Brooklyn Park. Mills said three council members have testified before the commission that they support the charter amendment, but he declined to say which members. Five of the seven council members must back the proposal to place it on a voter referendum.

Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, said last week that she is leaning toward supporting the unions. Murphy's husband, Fran, was a union member for 42 years. She has said that she "raised her family union."

"If it will make our job easier, I am all for it," Murphy said. "But still, what sounds good isn't always good. I agree with the administration most of the time, but sometimes you need to come in with a different way that makes things more fair."

Atkinson, the FOP representative, said police officers have little faith in collective bargaining because they believe elected officials often ignore arbitrators and their findings of fact, including data that show police and fire salaries should be raised to be more competitive with neighboring jurisdictions.

"The county doesn't have to abide by the recommendations at all," he said.

The Owens administration opposes the proposal for several reasons. Officials are concerned that an outside agent might set salaries so high that the county would have a hard time paying them because a voter-approved tax cap limits the government's ability to raise revenue.

"The person who makes the decision might not have the county's budget picture in mind," said Atkisson, the county personnel officer.

Labor representatives have attended charter commission meetings recently to try to ease concerns. They say that the role of county officials in contract negotiations would be reduced only in the case of an impasse and that the county's budget picture would be provided to the arbitrators.

`Not the horror story'

"It's not the horror story some people say it is - with an outside person coming in telling the county what to do," said Sgt. Bryan Heger, vice president of the county's sergeants association. "It's someone coming in saying, `This is the fair thing to do.'"

Council members came close to adopting binding arbitration two years ago after a contentious round of labor talks.

Councilman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat, sponsored legislation that would have set a referendum for the proposed change after Owens gave blue-collar county employees a 2 percent raise instead of the 3 percent salary increase that had been proposed by the council. In the end, the measure failed.

The subject of binding arbitration recently came up in Baltimore County. This month, police and firefighter unions there started a petition drive to place an initiative on the November ballot that would require binding arbitration. They need 10,000 signatures to succeed. Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has long opposed the concept.

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