An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge has dealt a serious blow to the county's use of binding arbitration to solve collective bargaining disputes with employees, ruling that the entire system is unconstitutional.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by public safety employee unions after the County Council passed legislation this year giving the council final say in labor disputes between the county and public safety employees.

Circuit Court Judge Paul Goetzske went beyond the scope of the lawsuit, which sought to reverse that legislation.

The judge said in his Oct. 7 ruling that the county's charter amendment authorizing binding arbitration, which was approved by voters in 2002, is invalid. He said it runs counter to both county and state law, by limiting the council's ability to dictate the terms and conditions of county workers' employment.

"Voters have no power to legislate through charter amendment," said Goetzske.

O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's police union and a party to the suit, said the decision would be appealed.

"The county may feel like they can financially bankrupt the unions with legal action, but I don't see that happening," said Atkinson. "At some point, justice will prevail, which means doing what the citizens wanted, providing a fair dispute resolution process for public safety employees."

Jonathan A. Hodgson, the county attorney, said the ruling "guts" binding arbitration.

"This case has broad and wide-ranging implications for county collective bargaining," said Hodgson.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold pushed to change the binding arbitration system, saying that the council should be the county's final fiscal authority, not an outside arbitrator.

Before the change, a neutral third party issued opinions when disputes arose, and both the administration and the council were bound by those rulings.

Leopold said he had not yet read the ruling but understood it to be a "significant victory" for the county.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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