By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun
7:05 PM EST, February 3, 2013
Baltimore County labor leaders plan to fight legislation by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz that would change the way public workers appeal county decisions on their retirement benefits, saying the bill would stack the deck against employees.
The bill, pending before the County Council, would give cases involving benefit disputes to administrative law judges appointed by the county executive and make other changes to the appeal process.
Those cases now are heard by the Board of Appeals, whose members are appointed by the County Council. The seven-member board convenes in panels of three to hear appeals involving retirement benefits, including for people who say they were disabled on the job.
Under the new measure, the Office of Administrative Hearings' jurisdiction would be expanded, and the office would be the first to hear appeals of decisions made by the county retirement system's board of trustees.
If unhappy with the hearing office's decision, an employee could then take the case to the appeals board.
The Kamenetz administration contends that the change would make the process more thorough. Public union leaders say the current system is fair, and that changing the rules would give the administration more power.
"There's no reason to change it," said Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4. "The only reason the county wants to change it is to have an unfair advantage and take away the ability of county employees to have a fair and impartial hearing."
Six of the appeals board's seven members are attorneys. Still, Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff, said the county's two administrative law judges would be better equipped to handle the retirement cases, which he said require "some rather in-depth knowledge of the law and of the legal system."
"It's fairer to everyone and more logical," Mohler said. "It's really to make sure that the process is more thorough."
The Office of Administrative Hearings' judges now hear cases on issues including zoning and development.
The Board of Appeals is not taking a public position on the legislation, administrator Theresa Shelton said. The board also deals with appeals on zoning, code violation and animal control issues.
County Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, declined to comment on the bill. Council members are scheduled to discuss the measure at a Feb. 12 work session, with a vote on the bill set for Feb. 19.
AFSCME Local 921 opposes the bill because it would add "an extra layer of litigation" for employees, said AFSCME Council 67 staff representative Ryan Genovese.
The Baltimore County Professional Firefighters Association has not taken a position on the legislation, but its board plans to discuss it this week, said Mike Day, the association's president.
Virginia Barnhart, a Towson lawyer who represents employees in benefits cases, said the legislation would make the appeals process more costly and time-consuming for workers. It would require employees to pay for a transcript of their hearing in front of the administrative law judge if they lose at that level and appeal.
"Do we really want to put older folks and persons suffering with cancers and disabilities through a longer and more costly process?" Barnhart, a former county attorney, said in an email.
John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, said the county's current appeals arrangement offers a "more neutral tribunal-type process" than the one Kamenetz has proposed.
Ripley said the legislation comes on the heels of a case involving former county highway worker William A. Galanti, who contended that he was forced to retire and subjected to unnecessary medical exams. In October, the Board of Appeals ruled in Galanti's favor and found that the county hired a doctor "for the purpose of finding Galanti could no longer do his job" after an injury.
Galanti is now suing the county in federal court, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"This administration has a track record of unfair and illegal employment practices," said his attorney, Kathleen Cahill, who also has represented county police officers and firefighters who say they were forced out of their jobs based on a medical condition. "Now they want an easier path to take away the critical and hard-earned retirement and disability benefits of its workers."
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