Leopold wants to limit binding arbitration

Public safety coalition marshals opposition

February 04, 2011|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Saying that Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold wants to punish them for not endorsing his re-election by moving to restrict a key contract negotiation provision, a coalition of public safety unions plans to marshal its members to fight an administration proposal to curb binding arbitration.

Leopold maintains that binding arbitration is tantamount to giving an outsider control over the county budget — down to the need to raise taxes — and that the proposed change is needed to give elected officials control over budget decisions.

Leaders of the nine public safety unions, which have about 1,500 members, dispute that.

Several say the administration's move "absolutely" is payback for their failure to endorse him for re-election last fall. Two unions backed his opponent.

"I've been in politics for 34 years, and I've never taken a vote based on an endorsement, one way or the other," Leopold said.

"In these difficult fiscal times, it is important to give the council the flexibility to say no," said Leopold, who has also promised voters that he won't seek to raise taxes.

An arbitrator of past disputes had told both sides that he must consider the county's finances in resolving disputes and can't force the county to find more revenue sources.

"The only way Mr. Leopold, the schoolyard bully, knows to deal with the money is to molest the county employees and take it out of their pockets," said Craig Oldershaw, head of the firefighters union.

O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Anne Arundel County lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the public safety unions will ask the County Council on Monday to hold a work session on the bill so that opponents can "educate" the council before the measure comes up for a public hearing Feb. 22. Four new council members are Republicans, as is Leopold.

From the federal to small-town governments, officials are looking at ways to span budget gaps, including furloughs, layoffs, and cuts in pay and benefits for public-sector employees.

Under binding arbitration, when the two sides reach an impasse, they can take the disagreement to a neutral third party who makes a decision. Union officials say the council can override binding arbitration now. Leopold says the council can't, which could force "draconian cuts."

The measure proposed on behalf of the administration would require the executive to include funding in the budget submitted to the council every spring for the administration's most recent offer to the public safety unions. Another section says that after the bill becomes law, if any part of it is invalidated in court, all binding arbitration is wiped out.

The bill comes as the county prepares next year's budget and starts contract talks. Some public safety unions have undergone furloughs in the past year.

The Leopold administration has yet to lose in binding arbitration. The county appealed a judge's decision in favor of the deputies on a procedural issue regarding arbitration.

"Trying to dismantle this arbitration is just laying the groundwork for attacking us on all fronts," Oldershaw said, adding that the administration previously used its ability to alter work shifts and eliminate jobs as a way to get unions to agree to a smaller, 3 percent wage hike instead of larger ones they had negotiated in multiyear contracts. "This is a guy who makes his money on the backs of taxpayers."

Leopold said the union chiefs' remarks that employee health care and pension benefits will be targeted are correct.

In 2002, 80 percent of county voters favored binding arbitration in a referendum. The previous county executive and now Leopold have sought to curb it.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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