For the first time in Howard County's history, members of the police officers union boycotted the annual Police Officer of the Year Award ceremony last week to protest the County Council's rejection of the union's 20-year retirement plan.

The retirement plan would have allowed police and firefighters to retire after 20 years and earn 50 percent of their final salaries every year for the rest of their lives. It was rejected April 7 by the County Council by a 3-2 vote, with the council's three Republicans voting it down.

The award ceremony was to be held Friday afternoon in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City but was officially postponed after union members decided to hold their own informal ceremony at the Clarksville Fire Hall at the same time.

John Paparazzo, president of the police union, said the boycott was meant to send a message of protest to the Republican members of the County Council.

"The members of the council keep telling us how important we are, but we felt their actions this month were a slap in the face to every police officer in the county," Paparazzo said. "When we saw that the award ceremony -- which was meant to give us a pat on the back for all the good work we've done this year -- was turning into a photo-op for the council and other politicians, we couldn't go through with it."

Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga of West Friendship, whose outspoken opposition to the retirement plan prompted dozens of officers to walk out of the council meeting, called the boycott "immature and totally unprofessional."

"If they want to boycott the award ceremony, that's their prerogative," Feaga said. "It's like they're not getting the whole cake, so they've decided to behave like bad kids.

"This kind of behavior certainly doesn't help their cause," he said.

Detective Cpl. Chuck Jacobs, who was to have been named Howard County Police Officer of the Year Friday, said he wished things could have played out differently.

"I guess I'm a little disappointed that there won't be an official ceremony this year, but it's the right thing to do," Jacobs said.

The rejected retirement plan had been negotiated and approved by County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the county's police and firefighter unions, which argued that the plan would have made Howard more competitive with other area jurisdictions.

To win the 20-year retirement, police union officials had agreed to a 12-hour schedule that would have eliminated overlap between shifts, saving $1 million and adding two round-the-clock patrol beats.

The package improved with longevity, with retiring police getting as much as 57 1/2 percent of their salary after 25 years and a maximum of 65 percent of their salary after 30 years.

Union officials said the rejected package of concessions could have saved taxpayers money while putting more police on the street.

Feaga disagreed and instead suggested that the police and firefighters unions consider a compromise that might end the dispute quickly.

"They just shouldn't be getting a full retirement at 20 years' service," said Feaga, insisting that he supported the police union wholeheartedly. "The public feels that the county cannot afford a 50 percent retirement at 20 years.

"Private business would never attempt to retire people at 20 years, because they know that they cannot afford it," he said. "This isn't the military."

Feaga and other council Republicans -- Councilman Darrel E. Drown of Ellicott City and Council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader of North Laurel -- are now offering another deal: Those retiring at 25 years would get the 57 1/2 percent amount instead of the 50 percent they now receive at 20 years.

Neither union nor county officials have determined how much that plan would cost.

Sgt. Steven Keller, a police spokesman, said 112 awards would have been handed out at the official ceremony, including Police Officer of the Year, Community Service citations and other commendations for exceptional service in 1996.

Many of the awards will be announced Thursday night at the county's seventh annual Chamber of Commerce Awards, which honor outstanding law enforcement officers, firefighters and educators.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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