Montgomery council president alleges threatening comments by police union chief

Long before she was elected president of the Montgomery County Council, Valerie Ervin encountered her share of tough-talking union leaders. She was one herself, after all, having worked to organize smelter workers in Oregon and catfish cleaners in the Mississippi Delta.

But there was a line, Ervin says, and in the run-up to a contentious budget vote last month, she thinks a top police union official crossed it.

According to Ervin, Walt Bader, a police officer and a longtime leader of the Montgomery police union, said the council’s moves to cut spending would turn Montgomery into the “Wild West.”

“He basically started making these threats: ‘You obviously don’t want to have labor peace, and it’s not a pretty sight to have,’ ” Ervin said.

Bader added, according to Ervin, “ ‘I’m sure you don’t want you and your neighbors to see cops with guns on the street with picket signs,’ or something to that effect . . . like we should be afraid of the people who had taken an oath to protect the public.”

Ervin said she was unsettled by Bader’s remarks. “He’s a bully, and there’s potential that the guy’s dangerous,” she said.

Bader, who took part by speakerphone in the private session with Ervin, council Vice President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and other union leaders, “also compared Montgomery County to Nazi Germany,” Berliner said. “Any reference to Nazi Germany for any Jew goes straight to our core.”

In an interview, Bader rejected the officials’ characterization of the conversation and said there had been no “illegal threats.”

“Have we threatened to exercise our legal rights? I don’t think that’s a threat,” Bader said. “Nothing illegal has been contemplated, encouraged or done, to my knowledge.”

Officers concerned

No matter what was said or intended, the breakdown in the relationship between Ervin and one of Montgomery’s most influential labor leaders shows how the terrain has changed in a liberal county long seen as a union stronghold. Although elected leaders say they must improve Montgomery’s fiscal health, many of the rank-and-file officers that Bader represents are concerned about their livelihoods.

Dozens of Montgomery police officers gathered last week in the council chamber in Rockville for a final budget vote. Some officers brought their kids and watched quietly. Others booed and shouted in disgust after the council passed the $4.37 billion budget, which scales back health and retirement benefits for all county employees.

“Shame on you. Shame!” one yelled. Another told council members they should call the county’s 311 information line when they need 911.

Sitting up front minutes earlier was a troupe of mimes, apparently intended to be council members. With them was a plump, red-haired clown wearing a name tag that read “Valerie.”

The discord shows no sign of abating. The Fraternal Order of Police is seeking copies of council members’ calendars and has raised questions about a tax lien that had been filed against Ervin. This week, off-duty officers parked their police cruisers outside Ervin’s Silver Spring home and demonstrated against the benefit cuts, just as they did in April outside the home of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

“This is not a temporary fix.” said Officer Mike Gotard. “This is a decrease that’s going to reverberate throughout your entire career.”

For months, Ervin herded her council colleagues through a tough budget process that culminated with a unanimous vote. She listened, cajoled and, a county official said, “knocked heads.” She also shuttled between meetings with union leaders and Leggett.

On paper, the end result was a spending plan that made few happy but put a modest dent in the structural budget deficit created by years of generous spending on public services and county employees. “We’re looking ahead six years or 10 years in the future, which is what we should have been doing all along,” Ervin said.

A new position for Ervin

But politically, the outcome has been a challenge to long-standing alliances and expectations. One of Ervin’s key goals was spreading the pain of benefits cuts more evenly countywide, including in the school system. Despite Ervin’s pedigree as a former labor organizer and school board member, unions across the board have not been pleased. And she is not surprised.

“Did I think for a second that I was going to alienate people who helped me throughout my career? Absolutely. At the end of the day, I think you are judged by your work in its entirety,” Ervin said. “I don’t feel I have done anything I should be ashamed of.”

Teachers union chief Doug Prouty said the council’s approach was “disrespectful” of school system employees. “I understand she’s in a different position now, and her concerns are different from when she was on the Board of Education,” Prouty said. “We’re not going to burn any bridges.”

Bader seems to have taken a different approach.

The budget did not include a police pay raise awarded by an arbitrator; the council has the final say. Other county employees also get no raise.

Collective bargaining

Bader has been incensed at what he said is a breakdown in the collective bargaining process. A judge ruled for Leggett in a legal dispute over whether he was required to include the raises in his budget proposal. The limited ruling has left questions about whether binding arbitration in Montgomery should really be considered binding. Higher courts and local politicians have yet to address that issue.

Bader said his comments in the meeting with Ervin and Berliner were meant as a “history lesson” about collective bargaining. Without such an orderly process for resolving disputes, the nation has seen “police officers taking to the streets” to defend their interests, Bader said.

“I specifically said, ‘If you don’t know history, you’re bound to repeat it,’ ” Bader recalled. “I did not say ‘cops with guns picketing.’ I’d be really surprised that I said that. . . . I might have said ‘patrol officers picketing.’ I don’t think it matters. Cops have guns. It’s a tool of their trade.”

He said Ervin’s reference to potential danger was “irresponsible.”

“Dangerous to who? She better watch what she’s saying,” Bader said. “When you’re a public official and you make allegations that someone is dangerous, you better be able to back it up, or you open yourself up to a process that will hold yourself accountable to your words.”

Police spokeswoman Amy Daum said that anyone acting improperly in uniform would be investigated. But, she said, “police officers are allowed to voice their opinions, too. That’s a freedom that’s protected by the Constitution.”

‘Odd coincidence’

Bader’s comments and his officers’ demonstrations have caused some in government to view their interactions with police in a new light.

After the council passed a budget last year that included furloughs, catcalls followed from some officers at the meeting. One officer said as he walked out that he’d be looking out for council members making a “rolling stop” on their way to work.

Less than a month later, in the midst of a campaign, police picketed a fundraiser at the Bethesda home of one of Berliner’s supporters. Berliner said he had a glass of wine and left for another event. Within blocks he was stopped by a Montgomery police officer, Berliner said.

“I was pulled over for rolling through stop signs and asked to step out of the car and count backward and things of that nature,” Berliner said. He said that he “may very well have rolled those stop signs.” He was sent on his way with a warning.

“I think it was an odd coincidence of timing,” Berliner said. “If it were other than that, it would have very broad ramifications, and we obviously cannot be in a situation where our citizenry is fearful of intimidation by those we entrust with protecting us.”

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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