In a direct slap at County Executive Lawrence Hogan's labor policies, the Prince George's County Council voted yesterday to move its meetings from the administration building in Upper Marlboro rather than cross picket lines if 1,500 county employes go out on strike as expected next week.
"This was a symbolic show of concern with the status of negotiations between the county executive and the union," said council member Francis Francois. "All of us were concerned about forcing citizens to cross picket lines to attend the meetings."
The council's vote on the union issue was accompained by another legislative swipe at the embattled county executive -- a vote to remove decision-making powers on the county's cable TV franchises from a commission appointed by Hogan.
Hogan's office had no comment on the council actions. Council Chairman Parris Glendening said the near-unanimous votes on the measures reflected a "general concern here today about some of the executive's policies."
The council decided not to cross picket lines for its regular session next Tuesday at the county administration building after discussions were held with officials for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes, a public employe's union that has been trying to negotiate a new contract with the county for the last year. Last week, the union notified the county that it intended to strike March 24.
Council members said yesterday that the union has agreed to allow them to enter the county building without problems on other days next week as a result of their decision to conduct next Tuesday's regular public session across town in the school board meeting room.
Council Administrator Samuel Wynkoop Jr. said, "The assumption is that we'll be conducting business as usual after the Tuesday session. But that could change again on Tuesday."
Although council members yesterday hesitated to publicly criticize Hogan's handling of union negotiations that have led to the current strike stance, many of them have said privately that they believe Hogan is forcing a strike because he feels it would be politically popular.
The political aspects of the impending strike came to the fore several weeks ago when Hogan vetoed a tentative agreement reached with the union that provided for a 4.7 percent wage increase. Hogan apparently vetoed the agreement because he feared it would appear that he had capitulated to the union and the council, which had been criticizing his handling of the labor negotiations.
Hogan has continually maintained that he vetoed the agreement because of several minor economic provisions in it.
After Hogan rejected the tentative agreement, which the union membership previously had ratified, the union notified the county that it would strike next Monday unless the contract dispute were resolved.
While Hogan's aides were stunned by the council decision to honor the union's picket lines next Tuesday, they were prepared for the cable television decision and quickly labeled it a product of partisan politics.
Hogan, a Republican, has labeled the cable TV measure, which leaves the franchise award entirely in the hands of the all-Democratic council, the "Winnie Kelly bill'" because he believes it was designed to aid a cable company for which former Democratic county executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. now works.
Council members yesterday challenged Hogan's assertion and said the cable law was changed only to insure that all applications for the lucrative cable franchise had a chance to be considered by the council before it selected one. Until yesterday's vote, the Hogan-appointed commission selected one or two cable firms, then forwarded only those names to the council for approval.
"I think there was a fear, based on the last year-and-a-half [of Hogan's tenure as county executive] that the commission could be swayed by outside political influences for or against somebody," said one council member.
The council has been wary of recommendations for contracts sent to them by Hogan's office since last summer. At that time the executive and council members fought bitterly when the council openly questioned Hogan's ethical conduct after he approved a loan for a firm represented by his wife and endorsed a sludge site owned by a former client and business associate.
When the cable issue came up several months ago, council members voiced concern that any commission appointed by Hogan might vote in favor of a cable group headed by two longtime associates of Hogan, and against their political ally; Kelly.
Hogan and the commission members have maintained that any evaluation of the cable companies would be done objectively.