The Anne Arundel County Council approved a measure Monday night that gives the body final say in labor disputes between the county and its public safety employees, a system that union leaders say deteriorates binding arbitration.
Despite overwhelming union opposition, the council voted unanimously to approve the legislation, which alters the county's binding arbitration agreement with about 1,500 public safety employees.
Councilman Jerry Walker introduced two key amendments, which garnered support among his colleagues, who were previously divided on the bill. The amendments require the county to include the arbitrator's findings in budget proposals and cut a provision that would have removed binding arbitration if the findings were challenged successfully in court.
"It sends a message to the voters of the county: All seven of us need to have a say on these important fiscal matters," said Walker, a Gambrills Republican.
Craig Oldershaw, president of the firefighters union, said he was "shocked" the measure passed with such broad support.
"It takes the decision out of the hands of an independent decider and put it into the hands of politicians — and we all know what happens with politicians," Oldershaw said.
County Executive John R. Leopold crafted the original bill, saying the legislation would help the county avoid a possible tax increase. Anne Arundel is facing an expected $75 million budget deficit in the coming fiscal year. Leopold said he was "pleased" with the council's vote, though he expressed disappointment with the amendments.
"The council voted unanimously in support of the important principle that elected officials, in this case the County Council, should be free to make the final decision on an arbitrator's award," said Leopold, a Republican. "In that way, they untied their hands."
The council's four Republicans supported the bill from the outset, but Walker received sharp criticism from his Republican colleagues when he announced at a council meeting last month that he would seek amendments to the bill. While the Republicans were divided on the amendments, the council's three Democrats all voted for them.
Councilman John J. Grasso, a Republican from Glen Burnie, who was one of Walker's sharpest critics, said he was "70 percent happy" with the bill as passed.
"It's not a victory," Grasso said. "It's a diluted bill."