Court says Montgomery County violated law in campaign to roll back police union rights

Montgomery County officials violated Maryland election law by using public funds and employees on county time to campaign in support of the 2012 ballot proposition that eliminated certain collective bargaining rights for police, a state circuit court judge has ruled.

But the court declined to hold the key officials in the campaign — County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and public information director Patrick Lacefield — personally liable for monetary damages sought by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the union that sued to challenge the county’s conduct. The FOP asserted that Leggett and Lacefield abused their power in mounting the campaign for the ballot proposition.

Circuit Court Judge Ronald B. Rubin said in a March 19 decision that the union’s claim may have validity. But he ruled that the two officials are entitled to at least “qualified immunity” because they acted in good faith on the advice of county and state attorneys.

Voters approved the measure, known as Question B, by a nearly 60 percent to 40 percent margin in November 2012. It repealed a 30-year-old provision of county labor law that allowed the police union to bargain collectively on issues that went beyond salaries, benefits and working conditions. “Effects bargaining” allowed the union to bring to the table virtually any management decision deemed to have a negative effect on the rank and file.

No other county union was covered by the provision. Police commanders said it turned a wide range of decisions — down to requiring officers to check their e-mail — into points of contention.

The Montgomery County Council, acting on a recommendation from a commission on organizational reform, unanimously passed a bill outlawing effects bargaining in July 2011.

It was an unusual departure in policy for the all-Democratic council in a county where public employee unions have historically enjoyed generous contracts and political clout.

The union successfully organized a petition campaign to put the matter to a referendum on the 2012 election ballot.

The county launched an aggressive campaign in favor of the measure. Leggett authorized Lacefield to spend up to $200,000 in county funds for mailings, bus advertisements and bumper stickers. County employees campaigned actively during work hours, according to testimony.

The FOP sought to purchase the same kind of advertising for Ride-On buses but was denied by the county because the ads were deemed “political.” Leggett eventually allowed the ads, but it was too late to place them on buses before the election.

Leggett and Lacefield said they were advised by attorneys for the state and county that they were exempt from requirements in Maryland election law to create a campaign committee and file reports disclosing the sources of funding. The county also argued in court that under home rule it had the authority to conduct the campaign.

But Rubin called this “a bold presumption of power.” He said the county’s fight for Question B went far beyond the bounds of merely informing Montgomery citizens about a matter of public interest and became partisan electioneering.

“No court has suggested that a government may not spend money to inform the public about its initiatives or legislative enactments. Of course it can,” Rubin wrote. “But there is a world of difference between communications that inform, and communications that proselytize and try to influence the outcome of an election contest.”

Rubin added: “In this case, based on the court’s findings, the question is not even a close call.”

An FOP leader agreed with Rubin’s assessment.

“I think it’s very consistent with what we were saying throughout the campaign,” Walter Bader, a past president of the union said Sunday. “They didn’t care about the democratic process. They wanted to win at all costs.”

Leggett and Lacefield reiterated Sunday that they did nothing improper and that the money was spent with the full consultation and consent of the council, including one of Leggett’s two Democratic primary challengers, Council member Phil Andrews (District 3).

Leggett said that the judge’s narrowly cast ruling — in which he found a violation of state law but declined to hold officials liable — makes the practical effect of the case “pretty moot.”

He added that having such a labor-management dispute resolved at the ballot box was unusual and unlikely to recur.

“It’s such a narrow kind of a situation I doubt if it happens again,” Leggett said.

Bader said the county’s campaign reflected “Leggett’s total disrespect for the democratic process” and what he described as the county executive’s arrogance.

“If they had played fair,” Bader said, “the results would have been different.”

The battle over effects bargaining has had repercussions for Montgomery County Democrats. Last spring, unions boycotted the Montgomery County Democratic Spring Ball, a protest that drew support from both of the party’s gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, and Leggett’s other primary challenger, former county executive Doug Duncan.

In January, the FOP endorsed Duncan in the county executive’s race.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
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