Montgomery County Council rolls back police union bargaining rights

July 19, 2011

In voting unanimously to roll back the expansive bargaining rights afforded to police officers, the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday took another jarring step for a jurisdiction long known for its generosity to public employee unions.

Already, the county officials and the police union have squared off over take-home pay and other pocketbook issues.

But in a packed and heated council session in Rockville on Tuesday — with officials at times pleading for understanding and some officers yelling out in frustration — the fight seemed to move into the existential.

One police supporter held up a hand-scrawled sign that read, “Do you really hate the police?”

In a jab at Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, who held the same position in Fairfax County before coming to Montgomery, another officer yelled, “Go back to Virginia.”

“How horrific this is to see this incredible split in our police department,” said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), whose effort to praise officers prompted one of several walkouts during the proceedings.

At issue was a rare, decades-old provision in Montgomery's labor law governing the relationship between the police department’s management and its officers. Known as “effects bargaining,” the provision gave the police union the right to bargain over issues that have an effect on officers. Such “effects" are in addition to salaries, benefits and working conditions, which police — like firefighters and county employees such as nurses and corrections officers — already have the right to take to the bargaining table.

Manger said the special provision for Montgomery police turned basic management decisions into cumbersome and time-consuming points of contention. He cited his inability to require officers to check e-mail as one example. And instead of issuing the department’s timesaving ticket-writing devices to the most prolific ticket writers, Manger has instead distributed them based on seniority because to do otherwise could have prompted protracted bargaining, he said.

The council on Tuesday cut most of that broad “effects bargaining” provision from county law, leaving police with the same bargaining rights as other county unions.

Police union officials, and some of the scores of officers present Tuesday, said they fear that management might use the change to ram through arbitrary decisions that could make their already demanding and dangerous job more difficult. Several harked back to the days before police in Montgomery had a union at all.

Officer John Romack said there has been a police officer in his family for 108 years, including his father.

“I used to watch him come home at night and cry because of how he was treated — a grown man, with a gun, crying,” said Romack, himself an officer for more than a quarter-century. His father had been reassigned from detective work back to the street, Romack said. He said he is concerned that such heavy-handed tactics could reemerge. “I’m not saying this chief will do it,” Romack said. “What about the next chief?”

Marc Zifcak, president of the county Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said the examples cited to undermine effects bargaining were “petty” issues meant to obscure the more fundamental rights at stake. Zifcak said the changes are based on “fallacious” assertions and are “going to create” more litigation and disputes.

One oft-cited concern among police officers was scheduling. One nightmare scenario was working a late shift and then being called in a few hours later by a punitive or unreasonable boss.

Council members pressed police managers about how potential scheduling disputes would be resolved, and some came away feeling uneasy with the department’s legalistic response. “Your answer is the kind of answer that makes me and other people nervous,” Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said. Elrich said he and other officials would be watching carefully for abuse and would be ready to institute protections if needed.

County officials emphasized that although there are gray areas in county labor law, many labor protections are clear. Management cannot act arbitrarily without the risk of being overruled by a county labor arbitrator, officials said. And there are a wide array of matters subject to bargaining, they said, citing the experience with other government employees who do not have the special police provision.

Police management, backed by the council, said the change was a common-sense change intended to make the department run more smoothly. Manger said in a statement that the change will allow for more “effective and efficient management...while protecting the rights of Police Officers to bargain their salary, pension, benefits, working conditions, and issues related to their health and safety.”

“The bottom line is this bill will untie the chief’s hands,” said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville). “Montgomery will continue to have an excellent police force. We have an excellent police chief as well.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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