Robey, union at odds over endorsement

Accusations heat up Howard executive's tense relationship with firefighters

Maryland Votes 2006

May 19, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

In a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse at hardball local politics, Howard County Executive James N. Robey is accusing the firefighters union's president of trying to strong-arm him into contract concessions by threatening to withhold the union's support for Robey in his bid for state Senate.

"It was improper. I was upset, and I'm still upset," Robey said of his private meeting April 19 with Richard L. Ruehl, president of the Howard County Professional Fire Fighters Association, Local 2000. Ruehl gave a different account of the meeting to his members in an e-mail obtained this week by The Sun.

The union chief, meanwhile, says he was merely outlining the membership's disappointment with Robey and says the county executive accused him of attempting "bribery," further poisoning relations between the union and the county.

"He's misunderstanding," said Ruehl, who said there was no quid pro quo. "I was simply telling him what the current union membership feels."

Robey, a Democrat, is trying to win the seat held by state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican and a key supporter of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. In 1998, Robey won the election for county executive by beating Schrader's husband, Dennis, now Ehrlich's homeland security director.

Firefighters have, in the past, supported Robey, a former Howard police chief and career officer who Republicans once warned would be too friendly to county employee unions. Robey has fought at times with the police union, but he sharply increased pay and pensions for firefighters and police and is seen as a friend by most county unions.

But Ruehl said that many of his 270 members are unhappy with their contract for the fiscal year starting July 1 because they did not achieve several important goals, such as shortening the average work week to 42 hours from 48 hours and getting higher pension benefits for 30-year veterans to match those for county police officers.

In setting up the April 19 meeting, Ruehl said, his "intention was to go to [Robey] and tell him what the prevailing opinion of the membership was." Although he wanted Robey to reopen the contract under a clause allowing that to happen, he said there was no threat to withhold a recommendation for endorsement unless that were done.

But in the e-mail account of the episode that Ruehl posted for his members, he said he told Robey that because of members' dissatisfaction, "it would be nearly impossible for me to get them to agree on recommending that the Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland endorse him for State Senate."

"I told him then that I had come to this meeting to see if there was any way that something could be worked out that would reverse the prevailing opinion to the point where I might be able to get approval for the endorsement recommendation."

Ruehl, who also recently denounced what he termed the county's loose control over volunteer firefighters, said Robey made a strong reply, shook his hand and ushered him out of the executive's office.

"He said that for me to come into his office and suggest that the only way he could get an endorsement for state Senate was for him to give us more than what we negotiated for was nothing short of bribery ... and that as a 30-plus-year public servant he would not stand for it."

Robey said he did not use the word "bribery" but otherwise confirms Ruehl's account of the chilly meeting. He said this week that the fire union "did a poor job of negotiating." He said the firefighters wanted higher pay, shorter hours and a better pension.

"What were their priorities? What did they want first? It can't be all of these," he said.

Robey said he also told Ruehl that he had done everything he could for the union and that it wasn't his fault that union members "were too stupid" to take the 80 percent pensions offered them in 2001. The police took that package, which included higher pension contributions from officers. The firefighters chose a 70 percent pension without increasing their paycheck deductions, figuring they could invest the savings in a then-booming stock market.

Robey substantially improved pensions and pay for police and firefighters in his first term and cut the average workweek for firefighters to 48 hours from 52. But his second term was marked by a national recession that left the county facing potential deficits, and he denied further improvements.

Ruehl said he thought this year would be different because of informal discussions he had with the executive over the past two years. But his belief didn't pan out at the bargaining table.

"After all the discussion, we firmly believed there was more for us from his words, and it would be made clear to us what that `more' would be," Ruehl said. It never was, he said. "I was trying to get a work-hour reduction for my members."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.