Binding arbitration amendment questioned

Legality of diluting power of council to negotiate labor contracts at issue

March 11, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis | Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

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 County Fraternal Order of Police.

Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican elected last fall, said he is merely seeking to determine whether the charter amendments are constitutional.

"People are a little upset I asked the question," said Middlebrooks, a former state senator. "I thought my job was to ask questions."

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 raised by Middlebrooks is whether the legislative wing of county government can be stripped of its power - even by the passage of a charter amendment.

The answer, according to Deputy County Attorney David A. Plymyer, is 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."

Either way, he said, he expects the final decision on what the council can or cannot do will likely come from a court.

If the council passes a law stating that it must follow an arbitrator's decision, taxpayer groups might sue. If it opts to keep its power to reject an arbitrator's decision, unions might sue.

"This is going to be challenged, probably, no matter what we do," he said.

Baltimore County voters approved a similar referendum for police and fire unions in the last election, and the County Council there is also struggling with the wording of the legislation.

Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, told The Sun last month that the implications of the amendments had not been thoroughly explored.

Baltimore City, Prince George's County and Montgomery County have had binding arbitration on the books for years, and Ocean City approved it in October.

In negotiations between Montgomery County and its police, binding arbitration has been used 10 times in the 21 years it has been available. Twice the County Council has rejected the arbitrator's ruling.

"Law prohibits a strike, so binding arbitration is the alternative that creates a level playing field for both parties," said James Torgesen, labor-employee relations manager for Montgomery County. "It has been good for morale."

In Prince George's County, chief labor negotiator Leonard Lucchi said binding arbitration essentially strips its County Council of all power.

"The arbitrator just sends the council a notice saying a decision has been reached," he said. "There's no approval process."

But binding arbitration has been used sparsely - twice in the past eight years - since voters approved it for police and fire unions two decades ago, Lucchi said.

In Anne Arundel County, Middlebrooks said the council will continue to study the measure.

"I don't think we should be passing laws we know would be unconstitutional," he said.

Sun staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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