When the Baltimore County Council voted this year to reform the pension system for its members, councilmen Kevin Kamenetz and Joseph Bartenfelder took opposing stands on a matter of high public interest — a rare moment in local legislation.
Kamenetz introduced a bill capping council pensions to 60 percent of full salary and applying the cap only to future council members. Bartenfelder's bill made broader reforms, applying the same cap of 60 percent to current as well as future members, and revising terms of age and length of service. The county auditor estimated Bartenfelder's bill would save $1.3 million, more than three times the savings in the Kamenetz bill.
The council ultimately tabled Bartenfelder's measure and adopted Kamenetz's proposal by a vote of 6-1, with Bartenfelder dissenting after several changes he proposed were rejected.
It was one of about 70 occasions in more than 2,500 votes on bills and resolutions in which the two top contenders for the Democratic nomination for county executive have cast opposing votes since they joined the council Dec. 5, 1994. They have maintained a cordial relationship on a council that tends to resolve differences on bills during public discussions. Later, in legislative meetings, the council usually moves quickly through the agenda, and the vast majority of votes on bills are unanimous.
The rare differences provide some clues about the candidates' respective approaches to governing.
Kamenetz is generally more inclined to support government regulation, but both men have acted largely on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds. If the pension bill vote in January cast Bartenfelder as the fiscal conservative, Kamenetz played that role in several votes on the county police union contract in 2008. If Kamenetz's vote last September against regulating commercial advertising fliers suggested a laissez-faire attitude toward business, so did Bartenfelder's vote weeks later against placing restrictions on minors using tanning salons.
The primary election will be held Sept. 14, and Bartenfelder and Kamenetz are facing off against former county employee Ronald E. Harvey. The lone Republican in the race is investment executive and former state delegate Kenneth C. Holt.
The council pension vote in January drew more attention than most, and political commentators at the time speculated about its potential impact on the county executive race.
Kamenetz and Bartenfelder both offered bills in response to a public outcry about the pension due Councilman Vincent Gardina of Perry Hall, who is leaving office this year after serving a record five, four-year terms. He'll retire from the part-time job with a pension equal to his full annual councilman's salary of $54,000.
Bartenfelder said recently that he did not think it was fair to apply reforms only to future members.
"I felt we should do pension reform that affected all of us on the council," said Bartenfelder, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Kamenetz said, "I drafted what I thought was an appropriate response. Any member can put in amendments as they see fit."
In May 2008, the two men were on opposite sides during a debate on compensation for another group of county employees. As part of approving the 2009 budget, the council took up parts of the new police contract that had been settled in binding arbitration, a process that requires both the county and the union to abide by the decision of an independent third party.
The binding arbitration award was broken up for council votes into 14 separate bills. Bartenfelder voted for 13 of 14, Kamenetz for six.
In view of Bartenfelder's support for organized labor and binding arbitration, his votes were not surprising. At the time, Kamenetz conveyed his misgivings about binding arbitration for public safety employee unions, which had been approved by a county referendum in 2002.
In his budget message delivered as council chairman that spring, Kamenetz called the police contract the "most troubling" aspect of that year's budget. He said binding arbitration requires the council to "treat one group of employees differently than another," and "potentially circumvents the budget controls" in the county charter.
In an interview, Kamenetz said he was aware at the time of the potential political risk of his votes and his statements. Indeed, this primary season he lost the contest for labor support to Bartenfelder, who won the backing of county police and firefighters, the AFL-CIO and, most recently, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 67. Kamenetz has been endorsed by the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Laborers International Union of North America.
In fall 2009, the two councilmen took different views on two questions of government regulation within weeks.