A Baltimore County judge has warned County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and two other county officials they could face jail time or other penalties for refusing to pay more than $1 million to police retirees despite a court order to do so.
In an unusual order, Circuit Judge Michael J. Finifter directed Kamenetz, county administrative officer Fred Homan and budget and finance director Keith Dorsey to appear before him June 26 to show why the court "should not hold each in contempt and/or impose sanctions, including incarceration."
The Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police is asking that all three be held in contempt of court in the long-running dispute.
Referring to the county executive, FOP President Cole Weston said, "It's extremely unfortunate that an elected official who also is an attorney, who practices law, would take a position to disregard the courts and somehow feel he's above it."
Kamenetz administration officials say the union's call for contempt charges amounts to grandstanding and have previously called the FOP's legal tactics "a publicity stunt."
"The FOP continues to believe that their retirees should have more generous benefits than everyone else," Kamenetz chief of staff Don Mohler said in a statement.
The case centers on county subsidies for the health benefits of more than 400 police retirees. Union leaders say the county violated their contract in 2007 when it shifted more health care costs to officers who retired between 1992 and 2007. The police union filed for arbitration and won. Since then, the case has been appealed all the way to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, which in 2012 also ruled in the union's favor.
The county still has not paid the retirees.
Baltimore attorney Steven D. Silverman, a civil and criminal lawyer and legal observer who is not involved in the case, called the judge's April 14 order highly unusual, saying it looks like Finifter "is using this option as a last resort to try to enforce the judgment."
"It's clear that in the court's mind the buck stops at the county executive's office," Silverman said. "There has to be accountability in government, and in the court's mind, the accountability starts and ends with the executive."
The county contends that its Health Care Review Committee, which is made up of union officials and others, negotiated the cost shift.
"This case stems from the FOP refusing to abide by an agreement their representative made along with all of the other county labor unions," Mohler said. "As for the grandstanding tactics of the FOP, you can't be held in contempt for refusing to do something that is illegal."
FOP officials say the union never agreed to the shift for employees who retired under the old contract, and they note that courts have sided with them.
"If the Maryland Court of Appeals has issued instructions or a mandate on how to proceed in a certain situation and the judge follows that mandate, the judge is going to take very seriously enforcing our highest court's orders," Silverman said. "The judge will certainly get the attention of the Baltimore County government."
County officials declined to say whether Kamenetz, Homan and Dorsey planned to appear in court in June, saying county attorneys are reviewing the situation.
Silverman said if Kamenetz and the other officials don't show up, Finifter could issue a bench warrant for their arrests.
Last year, police union leaders said the county owed each retiree about $1,300 to $1,900. The union previously sought about $573,000 in total reimbursements for the retired officers.
However, amid the court fight, interest on the amount the county owes to the retirees is growing, and the judgment against the county now totals more than $1.6 million because of legal fees, interest and the amount that the retirees are continuing to overpay.
Weston said county taxpayers could have saved "a tremendous amount" of money had the county not fought previous court decisions.
"Our focus is on this group of retirees that the county had a contractual obligation with," he said. "They served this county ...The disrespect here is clear — it's not only to this group of employees, but it's disrespectful to the entire judicial system, up to and including Maryland's highest court."