A key labor battle in Anne Arundel County will go before the state's highest court next month, when the Court of Appeals tackles the dispute over binding arbitration for the county's public safety unions.

Angering the nine unions, the county moved last year to give the County Council final word in collective bargaining disputes, a role formerly held by an arbitrator.

Union leaders hope the Court of Appeals will undo the council's vote and the unions' subsequent loss on appeal before a county judge. County officials want the court to uphold the revamped arbitration law, which they say keeps elected leaders in control of public money.

The hearing is scheduled May 3.

Union members turned out in force early last year to protest the legislation, which came on the heels of pay and benefit cuts, as leaders accused County Executive John R. Leopold of a power grab. Leopold has contended that the complaints that led to an investigation into his use of his police security detail were political payback for the legislation. He was indicted last month on misconduct and related charges that he directed the detail to perform personal and political tasks.

"He wants to rule with an iron fist, and binding arbitration protections prevent him from doing that," said O'Brien Atkinson, leader of the police union. "If we lose in court, we're stuck with the law that we have, and I'm sure that we will be at the mercy of the county executive."

When a union and county negotiators cannot reach agreement on a contract, the dispute can go to arbitration, where each side presents its case. In binding arbitration, both sides must accept the decision of the arbitrator. Currently, the executive puts the arbitrator's decision in his proposed budget, and the council can change that as it considers the spending plan.

Leopold said the legislation ensures that local elected officials have the authority they need.

"There has to be that safety valve so that council members can say: 'No, we cannot afford it,'" Leopold said.

In Anne Arundel, the issue dates back a decade. In 2002, voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment providing for binding arbitration for the public safety unions.

Last March, the County Council and Leopold changed the law to say that the council is not required to follow an arbitrator's collective bargaining decision. The Leopold administration, Atkinson said, had yet to lose in binding arbitration in labor contracts but chose to upend what voters wanted. At the time, Leopold said the county's success in past cases was no guarantee that it would win future cases, and his position was to "protect the taxpayers' interest."

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Paul G. Goetzke, who heard the unions' appeal, ruled that the 2002 charter change providing for binding arbitration was unconstitutional, and the unions appealed.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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