Balto. Co. Council approves retirement bill fought by unions

Ignoring pleas from union leaders and the county's Annapolis delegation, the Baltimore County Council approved a bill Tuesday changing how county employees can appeal decisions about retirement benefits.

The council voted 6-1 in favor of the bill, proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, was the only member of the council to oppose it, saying it will put county employees "through unnecessary hardship, both economically and procedurally."

Her vote, and comments, drew applause from union members in the council chambers.

Currently, when an employee disputes decisions by the county retirement system's board of trustees, the case goes first to the Board of Appeals, a seven-member group appointed by the council.

The legislation approved Tuesday, which will take effect March 4, changes the appeal process so that the first stop is the Office of Administrative Hearings, where it will be heard by one of two judges appointed by the county executive. After that step, employees will still be able to appeal to the Board of Appeals.

Several county labor groups say the current system is fair and the Kamenetz administration is trying to make it harder for employees to appeal the trustees' decisions. Union leaders contend that the legislation could violate state law and the county charter, which lay out the duties of the appeals board.

In addition, last week all but two members of the county delegation signed a letter asking the council to delay action on the bill, saying they wanted to get the state attorney general's opinion on the proposal.

Almond said the council should have waited for the attorney general to weigh in. "This bill will affect Baltimore County employees for years to come," she said.

The Kamenetz administration has said the Office of Administrative Hearings will be able to process appeals faster than the board, and the change will not conflict with state law or the county charter.

An amendment proposed by Kamenetz, and approved by the council Tuesday, will require the administrative law judges to hold a hearing between 45 and 60 days after the appeal is filed, and issue a final decision within 15 days of the hearing. Another amendment offered by Councilman Todd Huff will require the county to pay for transcripts in the appeals process.

But union leaders said they have no complaints about timeliness and say the county administration has pushed the bill because it has lost cases in front of the appeals board.

"It doesn't pass the smell test," said Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees President John Ripley after the meeting. "We didn't ask for it, yet all the administration says is they're doing it for employees."

The council approved another bill proposed by Kamenetz — and also opposed by unions — regarding the county's Health Care Review Committee, a panel of labor representatives and others that negotiates on county employees' medical benefits. The legislation calls for the county to use non-binding arbitration in disputes. Union leaders wanted binding arbitration and said the non-binding process will mean there's no incentive for the county to resolve disagreements.

Other legislation approved Tuesday deals with business signs in Towson and development in Middle River.

Council members unanimously approved a measure from Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, to limit business signage in Towson. The bill stemmed from residents' complaints about large signs that exist for Double D Bail Bonds and Bail Bonds Inc.

Marks' measure originally applied only to bail bond companies, but the council amended it so that it applies to any business within 600 feet of historic East Towson. He said later colleagues worried about the legality of singling out one type of business. The measure limits signs' height to 6 feet and bars the use of neon, among other restrictions.

Members also signed off on a bill to allow residential building on part of an 800-acre tract now designated for industrial use near White Marsh Boulevard in the Middle River area.

The proposal by Kamenetz is designed to encourage mixed-use development, but raised concern from residents who worried about a provision giving planners or an administrative law judge power to waive laws, regulations and policies related to zoning on the site.

Under amendments by the council, only an administrative law judge could waive a development regulation, and would have to hold a public hearing on any waiver.

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