When union members gathered outside the Baltimore County courthouse recently, many waved signs depicting County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, some referring to him as a bully or cheater.
They were protesting a bill proposed by Kamenetz that would have cut overtime wages from AFSCME workers' retirement benefits — an outcry that last month helped deal the county executive the first legislative defeat of his term.
More than a year into his tenure, Kamenetz has had an uneven relationship with Baltimore County's public employee unions as his administration seeks new agreements with several labor groups. County officials say the fact that nobody has been laid off or furloughed shows that Kamenetz — who struggled to attract labor support in his 2010 campaign for the job — cares about workers. Others aren't so sure.
David Rose, second vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said his group has not had much communication with Kamenetz. Contract issues between his group and the administration broke down, and were sent to an independent arbitrator.
"They're not really labor-friendly," Rose said of the administration. "They don't negotiate, in my opinion, in good faith."
Labor groups argued that the recent overtime bill was an attempt to circumvent contract negotiations for AFSCME, and County Council members tabled the bill that night by a vote of 4-3 — the first time the council has not approved a Kamenetz administration bill.
The county executive also was at odds with some employee groups last year over legislation to grant general county employees the right to binding arbitration, which voters approved in a 2010 referendum.
Kamenetz has tried to make efficiency and consolidation trademarks of his administration. His chief of staff, Don Mohler, said he believes the county can be fair to its employees while also being responsible with taxpayers' money.
"We have a singular focus — to save taxpayer dollars and to create a pension system that's sustainable," Mohler said. "We have reached significant agreements with our labor groups. Everything that we've done has been reasonable."
While some union leaders heavily criticized Kamenetz over the AFSCME bill, others say his administration has been fair. AFSCME and another union for public workers are still working on contracts that would cover the next few years, but the county has reached agreements with teachers, nurses, firefighters and sheriffs.
AFSCME Local 921 President Norman Anderson called the recent conflict "a hiccup" and said his union would strive for a positive relationship with the Kamenetz administration going forward. A federal mediator is scheduled to start working out contract issues this month between the county and AFSCME, as well as the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees.
"In all honesty, until he submitted the legislation, we've never had any real problems with Kevin," Anderson said. "I've never really felt that we've been in an adversarial role or that he was out to get us."
Anderson suggested some political factors that come into play when dealing with the county work force.
"I think when Kevin's first term is over, he wants to be able to say he was the only county executive that got through tough economic times without laying off employees, without furloughing employees," while maintaining the county's AAA bond rating, Anderson said. "That would be an awful nice feather in his cap."
Only two unions backed Kamenetz in the 2010 Democratic primary: the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Laborers International Union of North America. While most other unions later endorsed Kamenetz in the general election, they supported opponent Joe Bartenfelder in the primary
At the time, union leaders cited the men's votes on the County Council on issues such as negotiations for public safety unions. Some also felt that Bartenfelder was more sympathetic to working people.
Mohler called the language used by some union leaders in the debate about AFSCME workers' pensions "disappointing."
"To suggest that an administration that hasn't laid off or furloughed one employee is anti-union, I think everybody knows is a bit of hyperbole," he said.
Mike Day, president of the Baltimore County Professional Fire Fighters Association, said he believed some labor leaders misconstrued the AFSCME legislation.
"In some cases, [the administration is] getting an unjustified bad rap, and I believe that if people are willing to sit down and talk with this administration they're going to get a lot accomplished," he said. "If they're going to keep poking and poking, they won't. That's just human relations, not labor relations."
Day's union sat on the sidelines of the debate over AFSCME members' pension. It did not participate in the rally or testify before the County Council, as other union members did. Day, who sits on the county's retirement-system board, also supported the administration this year in a bill before state lawmakers that would limit pensions for county employees who had previously worked for the state or other local governments. Other unions opposed the legislation.
"Even with how coveted public safety is in the public eye, they still obviously want reasonableness as taxpayers," Day said.
Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said her union has worked closely with Kamenetz.
"I couldn't have asked for anyone better to work with," she said. "They've been very supportive of us, so we've been very pleased."
John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, said it's still too soon for him to assess Kamenetz because his union is still trying to work out a contract extension.
"We're still cautiously optimistic that we're going be able to reach an agreement and get contract extensions, but it hasn't happened yet," he said.
But he said his group has been disappointed in the county's slow progress on contract talks.
"We get calls almost on a daily basis from employees trying to get updates on contract negotiations," he said. "Certainly, county employees' frustrations are growing as each day passes and we don't have an agreement."