Leopold vetoes amendments to binding arbitration bill

Council will vote on override in two weeks

March 09, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold vetoed amendments Wednesday that were key to the approval this week of a bill that alters the binding arbitration process between the county and its public safety employees

The move quickly garnered criticism from some members of the council and union leaders, who argued that Leopold's decision could upset a delicate compromise among members.

The County Council unanimously approved the bill Monday giving the council final authority over whether to honor independent arbitrators' decisions in labor disputes between the county and its public safety workers. But the prospects of the seven-member council achieving an override don't appear promising. An override requires five votes, and three of the council's Republicans have said they will not likely vote in favor of one.

Leopold, who crafted the legislation, said it was created with the aim of preventing a possible tax increase or job cuts if an arbitrator were to rule against the county. Currently, a neutral third party issues opinions when disputes arise, and both the administration and the council are bound by those rulings

The amendments to the legislation, which garnered Democratic support that ensured passage, sought to require the administration to include arbitrators' awards in the annual budget. They also called for the removal of a provision that would effectively end binding arbitration if the unions successfully argue against an arbitrator's ruling in court.

"These amendments have the potential to wreak havoc on our budget process," said Leopold, a Republican. "It could require draconian cuts."

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents the Laurel area, said he would seek to immediately override the vetoes at the council's next meeting — and if that fails, he will seek a repeal of the bill. Benoit said the amendments were presented to Leopold four days before they were voted on, and he made no indication that he would veto them.

"It's clear it has nothing to do with the council being the final authority," said Benoit. "He espouses the virtues of compromise. But it's clear he wants nothing more than to wreak havoc on the employees of the county and the folks who represent them."

The use of Leopold's line-item veto power is rare. In his first term, he used it four times.

The council's four Republicans had helped craft the bill, and Councilman Jerry Walker, a Republican from Gambrills, surprised many of his colleagues when he announced he would seek to add amendments to the bill following a contentious public hearing during which hundreds of the county's public-safety employees had filled the council chambers, with dozens speaking out against the bill. The amendments, however, garnered support for the bill, ensuring its passage.

"I'm saddened that the county executive chose to veto the amendments in spite of the 7-0 vote on the bill," Walker said in a voice mail message, adding, "I'm not surprised by the arrogance he has displayed."

Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat from Annapolis, said he was "extremely disappointed" with Leopold's actions.

"It was definitely a compromise from my perspective," said Trumbauer. "I did not and do not support the original bill, but I worked with my colleagues in the interest of trying to make the bill better. But I guess that wasn't good enough for the executive."

O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's police union, said the county's Public Safety Coalition, representing 1,500 employees in nine unions, had met earlier in the day and decided not to proceed with legal action over the bill. After hearing about the veto, he said, all bets are off.

"If the County Council doesn't override the bill, they're not going to be able to keep us out of court," said Atkinson, who added that eight of the unions are at an impasse with the county over negotiations.

"This makes me sick to my stomach," said Atkinson. "It's all about control with him. Doesn't matter how illegal this is, it's his way or the highway."

Council Chairman Richard Ladd, a Republican from Severna Park, said that although he voted for one of the amendments, he would "probably not" vote for an override.

Vice Chairman Derek Fink, a Republican from Pasadena, opposed both amendments.

"The important thing is, whether we override the bill or not, the council's going to have the fiscal authority and the final word — that's something that all seven of us insisted on, and at the end of the day, that's exactly what we'll have," Fink said.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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