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The bonus brouhaha

EDITORIAL FROM THE AEGIS

7:31 PM EST, December 22, 2011

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Is Harford County Executive David Craig's plan to give bonuses to local public employees, including teachers, sheriff's deputies and government staff, good public policy?

There's room for disagreement on that question.

Local government employees — including teachers and deputies — have been obliged to make sacrifices in recent years because of the rough economy and financial decisions made by the county's leadership. As a result of those decisions, Harford County government is rather sound and solvent compared to many other counties and to the state and federal governments. The bonuses could be seen as a thanks to the public servants who have taken a hit.

Local taxpayers also have taken an economic hit, however, and there are those who have argued the county surplus from where the bonuses came should be returned to the taxpayers.

Room for argument, indeed.

One point where there is little room for discussion would appear to be on the matter of the union that represents Harford County's teachers, the Harford County Education Association, and the ham-handed, disingenuous way it approached the prospect of receiving unexpected money for its members.

The prudent response would have been to say "thanks" and be done with it. Instead, the union's leadership has fought, unsuccessfully so far, to secure the money in such a way that it would have to be paid through the school system, with no assurance that the money would be distributed as bonus checks to all school system employees.

The HCEA leadership took the position that the bonus money amounted to pay its members were entitled to, claiming a lack of raises in the most recent county budget — a budget drafted in lean times — was a trick to shortchange teachers orchestrated by a county executive, who was once a member of HCEA member and who spent most of his professional life as a teacher and school administrator.

In the back and forth and the gamesmanship the HCEA leadership played with the county executive and the county council, the teachers union leaders forgot to get an answer to one of the most basic questions in negotiating: "What if?" As in, what happens if we hold out for this bonus money to be turned into a salary increase, instead of taking it as a one-time payment? The answer has become painfully clear to school employees represented by HCEA who are "getting nuttin' for Christmas."

Instead of misleading the county executive and the county council about their intentions never to agree to accept the money as a one-time bonus, if the HCEA leadership had been more forthcoming, then 3,200 people would have received $625 holiday bonuses.

The HCEA leadership has taken the position that the reason "Why Bonus Money Must Be Part of Negotiations" is because "Craig is trying to tell the school system how to spend their money. He is not allowed to do this. It is against the law."

It's not the HCEA's responsibility to uphold the law. The union's responsibility, among many things, is to get the most money it can for its members. We're certain that if Craig had sent $100 million to the school system with explicit instructions that it could only be used to double the salary of HCEA members, then the HCEA leadership wouldn't refuse to accept the money because it was against the law for Craig to tell the school system how to spend its money.

It's correct for a union's negotiating strategy to ask for as much as it can, but it's wrong for a union's leadership not to have an alternate strategy for retreat in the face of failure.

The HCEA has a fiduciary responsibility to get the most it can for its stakeholders, not the most it can in the form it wants, but the most money that's on the table. That's another key element of negotiating: Have a pretty good idea of how far the other side will go and say "OK" when that limit is reached.

By being hell-bent on holding out for the bonus money to become permanent pay increases, the HCEA leadership essentially said let its members be damned. That the union leadership ended up walking away with nothing instead of $625 for each person it represents was a bad strategy, one that did not meet its fiduciary obligation.

No matter what transpires next, the HCEA leadership has failed miserably because Christmas will have come and gone and all the county employees, except those represented by the teachers union, had an extra $625 to spend. Perhaps next time, if there is one, the county executive will think twice about offering a bonus that has to be vetted by an organization whose leadership is so adversarial it can neither graciously accept a gift, nor properly represent its membership.