Election season politics infuse debate over Montgomery Co. collective bargaining bill

The 2014 Democratic primary is still nearly a year away, but Montgomery County’s election season appears to be in full flower. Take the recent debate over proposed changes in the law governing arbitrated collective bargaining agreements.

When County Executive Isiah Leggett negotiated raises averaging 7 to 10 percent earlier this year with unions representing police, fire and non-uniform employees, one of his justifications for the $31 million in hikes was that the county stood to pay even more if contract talks went to an arbitrator.

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Arbitration has not been a friendly forum for Montgomery. Of the 20 arbitrations since 1988, the county has lost 16, mostly to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Leggett said he favored changes in rules covering collective bargaining but has yet to formally propose any. Since then, he has announced his intention to run for a third term in 2014.

Last month a Montgomery County Council committee took up a proposal to revise how arbitrator-mandated labor agreements are reached. Its author was Council member Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), one of Leggett’s 2014 challengers and an unpopular figure with the county’s politically potent unions. Andrews has been an outspoken critic of past contracts and pushed hard to revise regulations governing disability retirement.

His bill would reorganize the current system, in which the same individual functions as both mediator and — if talks reach an impasse — arbitrator. Andrews wants to split the roles of mediator and arbitrator between two individuals, an arrangement he said might increase the chances for mediated settlements. Some labor law experts believe that parties to a dispute are reluctant to speak freely to a mediator who will also serve as an arbitrator, for fear that some statements might come back to damage their side.

Andrews would also open up impasse arbitrations to the public. The bill establishes a five-member panel, consisting of three neutral county residents knowledgeable about fiscal matters and non-voting representatives of the union and the county. The panel’s decisions would be binding.

The FOP and the International Association of Fire Fighters, not surprisingly, opposed the measure, asserting that the system works just fine. The Council’s Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee also recommended against the bill, expressing concerns that it could be seen as piling on the FOP, which has won the overwhelming majority of the arbitrations.

But the committee also expressed displeasure that it never heard from Leggett’s office on the bill. The sole member of the executive branch present at the June 24 hearing was Stuart Weisburg, an assistant to human resources director Joseph Adler, who had to be coaxed to say for the record that Leggett “has not taken a formal position.”

Members concluded that Leggett negotiated the labor contracts he wanted, not ones he had to settle for. They intimated that he ducked the discussion to avoid conflict with union leaders.

“We got spun, I guess,” said Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large)

“Missing in action,” as another possible 2014 contender, Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) put it in an interview Thursday.

In a June 28 letter to Leggett, Ervin, Riemer and the committee chairman, Council president Nancy Navarro said: “We were disappointed that you did not share your position on this bill with the Council . . . In your budget message to the Council last March, you explained your decision to negotiate wage increases for County employees in FY14, in part, by alleging that arbitrator-mandated decisions could have resulted in raises that ‘double or triple the rate of raises I negotiated with our unions.’

“If you believe that the statutory system established in the collective bargaining laws contributed to your decision, we would appreciate hearing any recommendations you may have . . .

Leggett called the whole matter “more of a political stunt than a serious attempt to make changes.” He said making arbitrations public would turn the process into “a circus-like atmosphere with people voting back and forth.”

Leggett said there are changes he favors, including an end to “baseball style” arbitration, in which the arbitrator must favor one side’s last best offer in its entirety. “I think there should be more flexibility,” he said. Leggett also favors establishment of a broad pool of arbitrators randomly selected to ensure neutrality.

But Andrews’s plan, he said, is “just part of the political atmosphere of campaigning.”

Andrews said Thursday that if Leggett doesn’t like his ideas, he should formally propose some of his own.

“The county executive needs to put something on the table if he’s going to assert that the arbitration process tied his hands,” Andrews said.

He added: “At some point he has to get past the line of argument that it’s all political and he’s going to have to address what needs to be done.”

 
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