After dozens of public safety workers testified in front of the Anne Arundel County Council Tuesday night, the panel delayed a vote on legislation that would end the practice of binding arbitration in labor disputes.
The bill, sponsored by Council Chairman Richard Ladd at the request of County Executive John R. Leopold, would give the County Council the last word in labor disputes between the county and its public safety employees. Currently, a neutral third party issues opinions when disputes arise, and the county must abide by those rulings.
Leopold, a Republican, has said the legislation ensures county control over the budget process. Leopold has garnered the support of his party's four colleagues on the seven-member council, almost ensuring passage of the bill, which has endured tough pushback from the county's nine public safety employee unions that represent 1,500 employees.
More than 60 residents, mostly police officers and firefighters, voiced their opposition to the bill during the four-hour hearing.
Councilman Jerry Walker proposed a delay and said he had several amendments to the bill, but the Edgewater Republican would not give details.
The Anne Arundel debate comes as thousands of union workers in Wisconsin continue to protest efforts by the state's Republican governor to take away collective bargaining rights from public sector unions. That dispute has drawn national attention as states around the country grapple with looming budget crises.
Arundel voters overwhelmingly approved binding arbitration through a ballot referendum in 2002.
Craig Oldershaw, head of the county's firefighters union, and O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, say the bill is an attack on the county's unions, and have vowed legal action if it passes.
Union officials also say they have been willing to work with the county as it has dealt with budget shortfalls, most recently agreeing last year to give back five percent in country contributions to its workers pensions.
"We are Wall Street's solution to the problems in this country," Oldershaw said. "This is the beginning of an attack on collective bargaining and public sector unions. This is not fiscally conservative. It's not smart and it's not legal."
Leopold did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Councilman John J. Grasso, a Republican from Glen Burnie, said support for the bill falls along party lines because Democrats "want to raise your taxes."
"The unions are against what I want, and what I want is what the taxpayers want: control, control of the taxpayers' dollars" said Grasso. "We need a back door if things turn bad. I need to be able to turn around and say, 'No, we can't support this contract.' "
Police union officials have accused Grasso of "flip-flopping" on the issue. In a candidate questionnaire last year, Grasso wrote that he would "not support any legislation which would modify the current terms and conditions of the binding arbitration for public safety employees."
Grasso acknowledges his response on the questionnaire, but said he changed his mind for two reasons: At the time, he "didn't realize how bad the financials were," and the union ultimately endorsed his Democratic opponents, voiding any promises he made.
"They didn't endorse me," said Grasso. "They didn't stand behind me, so I don't have to stand behind my proposal."
Five of Maryland's 23 counties and the city of Baltimore have binding arbitration for public safety employees. Last November, voters in Baltimore County voted by a 2-to-1 margin to support the use of binding arbitration to settle contract disputes with a large group of unionized county workers.
Derek Fink, a Pasadena Republican, said he supports the bill because he believes the council should have final say on financial matters and under this bill, the county will still be bound by the arbitrator's decision because it requires Leopold to submit legislation enacting the arbitrator's opinion.
"I think the council is the fiscal authority on all matters," Fink said. "I think there does need to be a change."
Fink added that it's "very important" to "support" the police and firefighters.
"We need to make sure we don't continue to balance our budget problems on their back," he said.
Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat who represents Annapolis, said he has received "lots of e-mails and calls expressing opinions" on the bill.
"The system has been working," said Trumbauer. "Obviously, the voters gave it a very strong support when it was on the ballot. …This bill, from my perspective, seems to have been crafted without any input from me or my Democratic colleagues. … This is a pretty major policy decision and both sides need to be heard."