Binding arbitration bill divides Arundel council's GOP

Walker riles colleagues by introducing amendment to make passage more difficult

February 26, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

A plan to alter binding arbitration in labor disputes between Anne Arundel County and its public-safety employees has created a political schism among newly elected Republicans on the County Council.

County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, has said the legislation ensures county control over the budget process and that the proposed system is no different from the arbitration process used by several other jurisdictions. The bill appeared poised for passage last week, with the council's Republican majority — four freshman lawmakers — expressing support.

But Councilman Jerry Walker, a Republican from Gambrills, surprised many of his colleagues when he introduced an amendment to the pending bill during a contentious public hearing last week. Hundreds of the county's public-safety employees had filled the council chambers, with dozens speaking out against the bill. Walker's amendment, which passed, made the bill emergency legislation, requiring five votes for passage. Four votes are usually needed for passage by the seven-member council.

The bill seeks to give the County Council final say over disputes between the county and its public-safety employees. A neutral third party currently issues opinions when disputes arise, and both the administration and the council are bound by those rulings.

Walker also plans other amendments to the bill, which he plans to introduce at the council's March 7 meeting in hopes of making the legislation more palatable to his Democratic colleagues. Among the changes Walker is seeking is language that would more clearly state that the administration is bound by the arbitrator's ruling and removal of a provision that would effectively end binding arbitration if the unions successfully argue against an arbitrator's ruling in court.

But according to his three Republican colleagues, Walker's actions have effectively killed the bill.

Councilman John J. Grasso, a Republican from Glen Burnie, said he was "irritated" by the amendment and accused Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat in his second term on the council, of manipulating Walker.

"Benoit is good," said Grasso. "He snaked Walker. He knows his stuff. Walker put us out to dry. He let us down. That's the bottom line. When [the bill] was being put together, everyone had a chance to make changes. Then 30 minutes before the meeting, he decided to say, 'The bill's not right the way it is.'"

Benoit, who represents the Laurel area, said that while he thinks the current binding arbitration system "works perfectly," he can envision a scenario where the bill is amended to the point where he could vote for it.

"I think one of the things [Grasso] needs to learn is a lesson in compromise," he said. "What you saw [at the meeting] was part of an effort to bring some consensus on a thorny issue. I commend Jerry for being able to think independently on this."

Council Chairman Richard Ladd said Walker had made it "probably impossible" for the bill to pass.

"If he's odd man out, we didn't put him there," said Ladd, a Republican who represents Severna Park. "He went there."

Walker, who campaigned as a "strict fiscal conservative," rejects those arguments. He said he supports the concept of the bill — that the council should be the final fiscal authority — but he worries that it runs counter to the county charter.

"As a conservative, guiding documents give us the rules of the road," said Walker. "If we're passing a piece of legislation that has the possibility of flying in the face of those documents, that gives me pause."

The newly elected lawmaker, who previously was chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee, added, "I am my own person. I make my own decisions. I'm standing by my principles, but listening to what people have to say."

Council Vice Chairman Derek Fink said Walker has shown himself not to be a "true fiscal conservative."

"He killed the bill," said Fink, a Republican from Pasadena.

Facing an expected $75 million budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, and the possibility of layoffs and furloughs, Leopold said the proposed legislation is a result of taking a broad look at county services and finances, with the aim of avoiding tax increases.

"I'm trying to free the council, to untie its hands, to say, 'We don't want to increase the income tax to pay for this arbitrator's award.' That's what it boils down to. I have no intention of dismantling collective bargaining," he said.

Leopold said he's still hoping the bill will pass.

"I'm used to the twists and turns of the legislative process," said Leopold. "I invite any member of the County Council who has an amendment that they think can help the taxpayers of this county to come and meet with me."

Walker has received praise in some corners.

O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's police union, said the county's nine public-safety unions, which represent about 1,500 employees, would remain opposed to the bill, even with the proposed amendments, on the grounds that it's not constitutional.

"We made it clear that we wanted this council to exercise due diligence before passing this bill," Atkinson said. "It was encouraging to see that someone was listening."

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