Anne Arundel County's public safety unions won a major court victory Friday, when Maryland's highest court threw out a County Council measure that gutted binding arbitration.
"This is a victory for all of our public safety agencies," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police chapter.
The county has nine public safety collective-bargaining groups.
In a 6-1 ruling, the Court of Appeals ruled that a 2002 change to the county's charter that provided for binding arbitration is legal, and that a law adopted last year that effectively undid it is not.
"As a politician, you can't come in and undo with the stroke of a pen what the citizens voted on," said Craig Oldershaw, president of the largest union in the Fire Department.
The 2002 change came in a voter referendum. It granted authority to an independent third party, an arbitrator, to settle collective bargaining disputes. County lawmakers adopted measures to implement it the following year.
In early 2011, County Executive John R. Leopold sought to dilute that provision and crafted legislation that allowed the County Council to ignore the arbitrator's decision.
He argued that when times are tight, elected leaders should have sole say about how public money should be spent. At the time, five of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City used binding arbitration for public safety employees.
When the bill passed the County Council, Leopold said, "In this era of budgetary austerity, the taxpayers' interest must be paramount." The unions sued, lost in Circuit Court, and appealed.
In a statement issued Friday, Leopold called the ruling "unfortunate" and said the county will comply with it. "The legislation overturned by the Court of Appeals was proposed to enable the County to deny pay raises for some employees when other employees must take furloughs and a reduction in pay," his statement said.
This spring, when it adopted a budget, the council did not fund the 3 percent raises for the Fraternal Order of Police that an arbitrator had awarded. More than a month later, a bill to fund them was withdrawn by its sponsor, who said he was told the lawmakers had missed the budget window for the raises.
While police are affected, how the ruling will affect other unions and the cost to the county are unclear.
"It's much more than the FOP because of the me-too clauses," said Derek Fink, the County Council president.
The ruling cannot be appealed, said Joel Smith, an attorney for the unions.
Judge Lynne A. Battaglia was the lone dissenter in the 6-1 ruling. She maintained that the decision wrongly infringes on the County Council's budget-making authority by giving the arbitrator the final say.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.