In a controversial power grab initiated by County Executive John Leopold, the final say on contract disputes with nine Anne Arundel County public employee unions, including Teamsters Local 355, no longer lies with an independent third-party but with the Anne Arundel County Council. A new county law passed March 7 allows the council to reject an arbitrator’s decision, thus overturning the will of Anne Arundel County voters who overwhelmingly approved binding arbitration for county employees in a 2002 ballot referendum.
The county council enacted a process in 2003 that forces all elected officials to accept whatever decision an arbitrator makes. The county executive wasted no time wielding his power over the newly elected council members - four of whom have never held public office or dealt with a county budget. The new law, originally introduced as Bill 4-11 in February by Council Chairman Richard Ladd (R-Severna Park) on behalf of Leopold, mobilized the county labor community.
Teamsters Local 355 partnered with other county public sector unions under the banner The Anne Arundel County Public Safety Coalition to coordinate efforts and resources in the drive to kill the bill. Union leaders worked tirelessly behind the scenes lobbying council members to oppose the bill. The public hearings contained hours of union member testimony against it. Teamster members stood with hundreds of other public safety union workers at council public hearings February 22 and March 7 to speak out in opposition of the proposed legislation that would curtail their bargaining rights.
In the years since the unions won their right to arbitration only four contract issues have been decided by an arbitrator, and in all four cases the arbitrator ruled for the county. So what's the problem?
The problem is Leopold’s hypothetical assertion that an arbitrator's decision against the county could be financially devastating during difficult financial times. An expensive award would force him and the council to – as he put it – make the terrible choice between deeper cuts or a tax hike. For that reason, he argued, the county council should have the power to reject an arbitrator's decision.
"This bill is not about restoring the council's power to make final decisions over the appropriation of public funds. The Council already has the authority to pass emergency legislation to overturn an arbitrator's decision if it would be financially damaging to the County," Deputy Sheriff and Teamster Dave Belisle (pictured second from right) reminded council members during his February 22 testimony. "This bill is more about increasing executive power and control than it is about budgets. The county administration has determined that its will supersedes the county deputy sheriffs’ rights. It wants absolute control over decisions - and the county’s unions."
Two of the amendments that significantly diluted the bite in the bill were included in its final version. One required Leopold to present to the council a budget based on an arbitrator's final decision and not on his final offer to the unions. The second dropped a provision that specified that if any union succeeded in getting any part of the new law overturned in court, binding arbitration under the County Code would be null and void.
These two amendments helped the final version pass unanimously.
But two days after the council passed the Bill as amended, County Executive Leopold vetoed those critical key amendments, ignoring the will of the council and effectively gutting the binding arbitration component of the County Code. "This is a horrible abuse of power, " Councilman Daryl Jones (D-Severn) told The Capital in response to Leopold’s veto.
The council failed to override Leopold’s vetoes during its March 21 meeting. Five votes are required to override a veto, whereas only four were needed to pass the bill. So what was given to public safety unions by nearly 80% of county voters has been taken away by Leopold and four council members doing his bidding.
“It has now been clearly established that the elected members of the County Council, not an outside arbitrator, will have fiscal authority regarding arbitration awards,” Leopold said in a written statement. “In this era of budgetary austerity, the taxpayer’s interest must be paramount.”
Apparently Leopold doesn’t get it. Many of the county's public safety employees are voters and taxpayers. Local 355 and members of the Public Safety Coalition are investigating their legal options.
It's not over.