The new Baltimore County Council appears ready to carry out the will of voters, who gave strong support Tuesday to a ballot question giving the council authority to expand labor bargaining rights for more government employees.
Four of seven members of the council that will take office Dec. 6 said they would support a bill to amend the county charter to allow a neutral third party to settle contract disputes with a large group of unionized county workers in a practice called binding arbitration. The details will be included in council legislation, and could affect up to 3,000 county employees represented by four unions.
The employees include those working in animal control, code enforcement, road inspection, health care emergency dispatching and the sheriff's department.
The ballot measure passed by a more than two-to-one margin despite vocal opposition from outgoing County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who campaigned against the charter change, arguing that binding arbitration compromises the county's ability to control expenses in a time of increasing fiscal stress. The county drew a legal challenge for its handling of a previous binding arbitration case involving public safety employees.
Binding arbitration now applies only to negotiations with police and firefighters, who won that right after a referendum vote in 2002. The practice has since been used twice in negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police Baltimore County Lodge 4, once resulting in a union lawsuit that will be moving to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals after the union won a county Circuit Court ruling this summer.
The suit was brought in 2008 against Smith, who has served the limit of two terms. He will be succeeded by Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who has spoken against binding arbitration in the past, but could not be reached for comment on this story.
The county has appealed a ruling handed down in July by Judge Timothy J. Martin. Martin ruled that Smith "failed to follow the requirements" of the county code in the way he handled an arbitrator's award in the spring of 2008.
Martin ruled that Smith had "thwarted the clear purpose of the code" when he submitted the arbitrator's award for approval to the council in 14 separate bills, including contract items that did not require the council to pass legislation or would cost little or no money. The code specifically says the executive is to submit to the council proposed contract provisions that "require an appropriation of funds or the enactment of legislation."
Six of the 14 items were turned down by the council, and five of those — including provisions for bereavement leave and holiday pay — are at issue in the suit.
While the ballot question says the council is "authorized" to revise the charter but does not specifically instruct the council to make the change, a majority of members said they felt they were obliged to carry out the voters' direction.
"I think we should follow the will of the people," said Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver of Randallstown, representing District 4, one of only two council members — along with John Olszewski Sr. — who will be returning to the panel after being re-elected on Tuesday. "If this is what they want, I will follow."
Olszewski, of District 7, said after the referendum passed in 2002 it was not a question of whether the council would carry out voters' wishes, but how.
"The people of the county had spoken, and we represent the people of the county," said Olszewski. He said he would be inclined to support binding arbitration in any case.
"I'm a union guy, I'm in favor of it," said Olszewski, of Dundalk. "As long as it's used correctly." He said he did not want to see unions abuse the practice as a "tactic to not negotiate."
Of the five newly elected Council members, two said they would support binding arbitration, two would not commit to a position and one did not return calls asking for comment.
David Marks, one of two new Republicans on the panel, noted that the county already has binding arbitration for two unions, and said he would support the charter change.
"Baltimore County is a very well-managed county," said Marks, of Perry Hall, who will represent District 5. "I don't think binding arbitration has jeopardized the fiscal health of the county."
His fellow Republican, Todd Huff, of Lutherville, newly elected to represent District 3, did not return messages asking for his comment.
Vicki Almond, of Reisterstown, elected to represent District 2, said she supported binding arbitration during her campaign and she would do so on the council, although she said she hoped the procedure would not be necessary.
"Hopefully, we can use the collective bargaining process to come to mutual conclusions," said Almond.
Tom Quirk, of Catonsville, elected to represent District 1, and Cathy A. Bevins, of Middle River, who is leading pending final voting results to take the District 6 seat, did not commit to a position either way.