Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) is proposing legislation to bring what she calls more “balance” to the county’s collective bargaining process. (Courtesy of Council Office of Nancy Floreen)

Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen, who led the effort this spring to trim previously negotiated pay raises from public employee union contracts, is proposing legislation to bring what she calls more “balance” to the county’s collective bargaining process.

Floreen’s bill, to be introduced at Tuesday’s legislative session, would open parts of the negotiations between unions and the county government to the public for the first time and use retired judges, rather than experienced labor negotiators, as neutral third parties. It would replace the single arbitrator who currently decides labor disputes with a three-person panel, and require that panel to give more weight to the county’s financial ability to pay for labor agreements.

“This Council is committed to finding the right balance between the needs of our residents and the needs of our employees,” Floreen (D-At Large), considered one of the more business-friendly members of the all-
Democratic council, said in a statement Monday. “The bill would help the County and our employees establish more equitable contract arbitration awards and enhance the likelihood that negotiations are grounded in fiscal reality.”

Union leaders immediately denounced the bill, calling it a series of solutions to problems that do not exist. They also expressed disappointment that Floreen did not reach out to them prior to introducing the measure.

“We don’t understand the need for the bill,” said Jeff Buddle, president of the career firefighters union, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1664. “We have a process that is extremely effective.”

Perhaps too effective, in the view of Floreen and other council members. County unions have won 16 of 20 arbitration decisions since 1988.

By tweaking parts of the arbitration process, Floreen said, she hopes to encourage both the government and labor unions to more frequently seek a negotiated solution to disputes and avoid arbitration.

The bill, which Floreen said has been in the works for months, is certain to add to the increasingly strained relations between the council and the county’s police, fire and non-uniformed employees. The council, which has final say over labor contracts negotiated by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), angered unions this year by trimming promised pay increases, eliminating a 3.5 percent longevity increase that was deferred during the recession. The council said it needed the funds for school improvements instead.

In response, Gino Renne, president of the Municipal and County Government Employee Organization, which represents about 5,000 non-uniformed workers, called council members “clowns” and said the union will consider backing the term-limits proposal likely to be on the county ballot this fall.

The bill would require public disclosure of each party’s initial bargaining position in a contract negotiation. It would also mandate that certain aspects of the arbitration process be held in public.

It would repeal the right of each union to have a say in the appointment of a labor relations administrator, who helps to ensure that the collective bargaining law covering each union is being followed. The appointment would instead be decided exclusively by the county executive and the council.

Floreen also wants to separate the role of mediator and arbitrator in labor disputes in which the county and a union can’t come to terms. Current law requires one person to serve as both. Floreen said she believes both sides would feel freer to confide the strengths and weaknesses of their positions to a mediator who would not be involved in imposing an arbitrated solution.

The three-person arbitration panel would include one person selected by the executive, one by the union and a retired judge to be mutually agreed upon. Floreen’s proposal would also expand the number of factors the panel must consider beyond affordability before making its decision.

Renne said some of the bill’s provisions come “right out of the ALEC playbook,” referring to model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative policy group that works with state legislatures.

Floreen said that was not the case and that many of the proposals in the bill come from recommendations made by a county commission on organizational reform that issued a report in 2011.