Council OKs bill allowing arbiters

Measure would affect contract disputes with public safety unions

For use when talks break down

Police, fire, jail workers won right in Nov. election

Anne Arundel

March 18, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Council passed legislation last night to turn over the final say in some contract disputes with public safety workers to a third-party arbiter.

Nearly 200 county firefighters, police officers and detention center workers packed the council chambers for the expected vote, many wearing long-sleeved T-shirts reading: "Vote yes to binding arbitration."

The public safety unions favor binding arbitration because they are not allowed to strike.

Binding arbitration shifts final say in a collective bargaining agreement from county government to a third party. It is to be used only when talks break down between the unions and county government.

Two charter amendments requiring the creation of binding arbitration for public safety workers in Anne Arundel County -- one dealing with law enforcement officers, the other with firefighters -- passed in the November election with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

At that time, the council legislation appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

But last month the future of binding arbitration grew murky.

Issues were raised about whether the legislative wing of county government could be stripped of its power to vote down a contract proposal -- even by the passage of a charter amendment.

Under the binding-arbitration legislation they approved on a 4-1 vote, council members relinquished their power to vote down any proposed contract with public safety unions.

"A lot of misinformation and rhetoric went out prior to today," O'Brien Atkinson, the president of the Anne Arundel County lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. "Luckily, the council rose above and made it happen."

Responding last month to an inquiry by Republican Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks -- the lone dissenter -- the county's Office of Law issued an opinion that the council could amend the legislation to allow it to vote against any decision reached by an arbitrator.

The Office of Law stood by that opinion at last night's meeting, but no amendment was introduced and the measure was passed intact.

Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer said that, despite his concerns, he is prepared to defend the measure's constitutionality in court.

That could become an issue, as council members have suggested that taxpayer groups might sue.

Plymyer said last night that the most important factor would be that the council turn over its power to an arbiter "because it wanted to, not because it thought it had to."

Two members -- Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale and Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. -- did not vote on the issue because they have relatives who are public safety workers.

Even though the council turned over its power to an arbiter, it could -- any year it doesn't like an arbiter's decision -- pass emergency legislation to get it back, union leaders and Middlebrooks have agreed. Such legislation would require five votes to pass.

During the discussion last night, Plymyer raised a concern that an arbiter could look at the ability of the county to raise its income tax or other taxes. The ability to raise that money could be a factor in an arbiter deciding how much money to award public safety workers, he said.

Councilwoman Barbara Samorajczyk and union attorney F.J. Collins disagreed with that assessment.

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