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News Opinion Editorial

Voters rule — even in Towson

Last year, 171,733 voters in Baltimore County endorsed a referendum granting binding arbitration to more than 2,500 county employees, including emergency call dispatchers and health inspectors. That was more votes than any candidate for county office received, and the measure passed by a greater than 2-to-1 margin.

Now, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is asking the County Council to delay binding arbitration for several years and severely limit what "terms and conditions" of employment could be brought before a neutral arbitrator. The proposal would mean that employees affected by the controversial referendum wouldn't realize its benefits until fiscal 2016.

The rationale for this action centers almost entirely on fiscal discipline. Officials worry that leaving the county's finances subject to the whims of a third party under today's already-challenging economic circumstances could prove disastrous.

But in offering a half-decade delay in full implementation, Mr. Kamenetz is taking a stance that should make the administration even more uncomfortable than whatever fiscal uncertainties are raised by the pro-union measure. It denies the will of county voters, who overwhelmingly endorsed binding arbitration at a time when the economy was no better than today.

Some in the administration may argue that voters didn't have a full grasp of what was before them, but such second-guessing is irrelevant nearly 11 months later. Nor is it necessarily completely accurate, as some did speak out against the proposal last fall, including outgoing County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

And just how great a fiscal calamity does arbitration pose? The county already grants similar power to its police and firefighting unions. And whatever an arbitrator might rule, it would still be up to the County Council to decide whether to accept, reject or amend the decision. In other words, the County Council retains final say over collective bargaining agreements.

The county has only once had to deal with the process, in 2008, when an arbitrator called for higher salaries for some police officers and some changes in the terms and conditions of their employment. The County Council rejected some of the arbitrator's findings but accepted others, including the pay raises, which cost $3.6 million in a $2.58 billion budget. The council chairman at the time, a fellow named Kevin Kamenetz, said failing to do so "would have destroyed the integrity of a statute that the people of Baltimore County required us to adopt when they went to the polls."

The administration's fear of binding arbitration reflects a long-standing bias — not against unions but against a loss of control. Officials distrust a process that allows anyone but a county executive, his county administrator or their designee to make fundamental decisions about how county agencies should be run or how employees should be treated.

Baltimore County is understandably proud of its record as one of the most fiscally disciplined governments in the state. Of the state's seven biggest jurisdictions, only Baltimore County has imposed neither furloughs nor layoffs during the recent economic downturn. It was among the first to seek — and receive — significant pension concessions from its workers.

There is no reason to assume that last year's ballot measure forces the county to adopt the most generous interpretation of binding arbitration possible. Placing limits on employment practices in the public safety agencies, including the jail and emergency call center, for example, would seem appropriate and within the framework of what voters approved.

What's not appropriate is sitting on binding arbitration for so long that Christie Brinkley would be eligible for her Social Security benefits or Barack Obama could be wrapping up a second term in the White House. It does not matter how much money or administrative headaches such a delay might spare the county; the voters' will simply can't be ignored because it's inconvenient.

That's not to suggest the measure has to be finalized today or even this year. Perhaps further negotiations with key unions, including the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, might yield a more reasonable compromise. Most of the county employee unions are working under contracts that won't expire for two years.

But the time for speaking out publicly against binding arbitration for county workers was last year. Now is the time to implement a reasonable set of rules that meet the requirements of the referendum petitioned by unions to the county ballot in 2010.

As amusing as the topsy-turvy political fallout of binding arbitration may be (it's caused Republican Councilman David Marks to be a leading voice on behalf of the unions, while Democratic Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr., normally outspoken on behalf of unions, has advocated for the delay), Baltimore County is not some third world dictatorship where the electorate can be ignored. Voters still have the last word in Towson — or at least, that's how a democracy is supposed to work.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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