Montgomery Council Members Intervene in Police Union Talks

Isiah Leggett's aides have been negotiating with police union leaders.
Isiah Leggett's aides have been negotiating with police union leaders. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Four Montgomery County Council members have intervened in contentious negotiations over changes to the county government's disability retirement program for police officers. They said yesterday that police union leaders have offered a responsible road map for overhauling the troubled system that should allow County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to quickly strike a deal.

But Leggett's top aide suggested that the council step aside instead of complicating the administration's ongoing discussions with union officials.

"You've got to let us finish the process. Bargaining is hard enough," said Timothy Firestine, Leggett's chief administrative officer. "If they want us to negotiate this, they should just leave us alone and let us do it."

For six months, Leggett's aides have been in talks with police union leaders to try to reach a consensus on changes to the retirement system, which has come under scrutiny by the county's inspector general and federal law enforcement officials.

Separately, two council members, Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), have introduced legislation that would overhaul the program by establishing a partial disability benefit and more stringent oversight.

Four other council members -- Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) -- said they reached out to union leaders when it appeared that Leggett was not making progress in talks with the police union and after he reached an impasse over cost-of-living pay raises for the county's firefighters.

Those council members, who have become an increasingly vocal and unified bloc in prodding the county executive on various issues, have met privately with union leaders over the past four weeks. Ervin and Knapp said the group was not bargaining per se but was having conversations to try to spark discussions.

"We felt someone had to lead, and we decided it would be us," Ervin said.

Under Montgomery's system for police officers, all retirees who qualify for a service-connected disability receive a tax-free benefit equal to about two-thirds of their salary. Leggett and some council members called for reform because of concerns about the fact that a higher percentage of officers in Montgomery collect disability benefits than in neighboring jurisdictions.

Yesterday, council members circulated a summary of changes that they said reflected recommendations by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35. The union proposed creating three levels of benefits, depending on the severity of a disability, that would apply to employees hired starting July 1.

Trachtenberg, one of the sponsors of the legislative proposal, called several elements of the offer "problematic," particularly the provision saying that it would not apply to the current police force.

"You're basically giving people a get-out-of-jail-free pass. That's foolishness," she said. "The public is demanding meaningful reform."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company