When Anne Arundel County voters approved charter amendments last fall to send the most bitter contract disputes to a third party, emergency workers thought they had finally wrested the last word in such matters from county leaders.
Now, however, police and fire union leaders are concerned the county might be trying to sidestep binding arbitration and hold on to some of that power.
Responding to an inquiry by Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, the county's Office of Law has issued an opinion that the County Council could vote against any decision reached by an arbitrator. That came as a surprise to union leaders, who had fought for binding arbitration for decades.
"This was created to protect public safety personnel, but if it's not binding, it's not going to protect us," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Anne Arundel Fraternal Order of Police.
Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican elected last fall, said he is merely seeking to determine whether the charter amendments are constitutional.
Public safety unions often favor binding arbitration because they are not allowed to strike. It shifts final say in a collective bargaining agreement from the county government to a third party. The two charter amendments in Anne Arundel County - one dealing with law enforcement officers, the other with firefighters - passed with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Union leaders will begin a push to preserve binding arbitration - as they believe voters approved it - at today's County Council work session at the Arundel Center in Annapolis. They also are urging their members to attend next week's council meeting, when a vote is scheduled on how to enact binding arbitration.
At the heart of the issue is whether the legislative wing of county government can be stripped of its power - even by the passage of a charter amendment. Deputy County Attorney David A. Plymyer says no.
Based on the Feb. 25 opinion, Middlebrooks said that even if the council passed a law forcing itself to follow an arbitrator's decision, it could reverse that law at any time.
"If we do give up the power," he said, "we can take the power right back."