Council adopts charter questions for referendum

Hottest issue arbitration for public safety salaries

Fire, police unions back idea

Proposed expansion of Ethics Commission dies

Anne Arundel

August 23, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

After months of review and debate, Anne Arundel County Council members have sent a list of proposed charter amendments, including a hotly contested measure to allow an outside arbitrator to settle labor disputes, to voters for a referendum in November.

Council members added an eighth and final charter revision concerning bidding practices to the list at a meeting Monday. Councilman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. withdrew a resolution to enlarge the county Ethics Commission because of a lack of input from commission members.

"I thought it was unfair to vote on something that they hadn't had time to consider," Klosterman said. "I wouldn't like it if someone did that to me. We needed their feedback."

A five-member committee of residents submitted a list of potential amendments to the council in May. Council members selected proposals from the list and added a few of their own.

Amendments that will appear on the ballot Nov. 5 include one that would set up new rules of succession in case a county executive dies in office. The council has also proposed to change the title of the county's top fire official, from fire administrator to fire chief, and to slightly alter the county's purchasing process.

But the charter amendment that has received the most notice is one that would allow an outsider to set the salaries of public safety officials. Fire and police union representatives lobbied for the charter change, saying elected officials too often ignore salary recommendations made by outside mediators.

Although the county code allows an independent arbitrator's help to settle labor disputes, the amendment as proposed would make the third-party decision binding.

The Ethics Commission had stated that Klosterman, a Democrat from Millersville, and Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican from Severna Park, couldn't vote on the binding arbitration question because they have relatives who work for the Fire Department.

But at a meeting earlier this month, the council addressed the issue by introducing two separate bills - one for the Fire Department and one for law enforcement agencies - enabling Klosterman and Vitale to vote on the latter.

Both bills passed despite opposition from County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Millersville Democrat who is running for re-election. Some in her administration argued that the charter amendment could hurt the local budget process, which is already restricted by a voter-imposed tax cap.

"The most succinct way to put it is that it takes the budgetary process out of the hands of elected officials and places it in the hands of an unelected and unaccountable third party," said Mark Atkisson, the county's personnel director.

Atkisson said that he wasn't sure what kind of campaign, if any, county officials might launch to urge voters to reject the measure.

"I think everyone knows that it [the administration] is opposed," Atkisson said. "And I am sure that the question of opposition will come up during the campaign."

Not all of the charter amendments proposed by the council will make it to the ballot.

Council members voted 4-3 earlier this month to reject a proposal to allow the council to appoint its own legal counsel. The bill, proposed by Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat, had been criticized by County Attorney Linda M. Schuett, who said it could further divide local government.

"The situation inevitably would polarize, with the County Council drawing from its attorney and the county executive drawing from her attorney," said David A. Plymyer, deputy county attorney. "The council shouldn't be placed in the position of trying to evaluate which legal opinion is the correct one."

The proposal to enlarge the county's Ethics Commission, also sponsored by Samorajczyk, Vitale and Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, was blasted by a government watchdog group because it could further politicize the commission.

Supporters proposed expanding the panel from seven to nine members, allowing two appointments for the county executive and one each for the council's seven members.

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