State halts take-home police car program

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said yesterday that he plans to scuttle an agreement under which the Ehrlich administration promised take-home police vehicles for each of the 448 uniformed members of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

Porcari said he had only recently learned about the agreement, which calls for the state to provide cars to the officers in exchange for their union's dropping its efforts to achieve collective bargaining rights.

"As of today, we are not going forward with this program," Porcari said. "The total program was estimated at $11 million. This is big money."

Under the agreement, the force would have increased its fleet of 148 vehicles by 300, said Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan. He said about 25 have been delivered. The authority police are responsible for law enforcement at state transportation facilities.

Porcari said the O'Malley administration would prefer to address issues involving officers' compensation through pay raises. He said the action was "not a knock or lack of confidence in rank-and-file police officers," but added that the deal was "not the most effective use" of public safety dollars.

Trent M. Kittleman, the former Maryland Transportation Authority executive secretary who approved the agreement, said it would be "wrong" for Porcari to cancel the deal. "He's the boss now. He can do what he wants," she said. "It's unfortunate to renege on a commitment that was made in good faith."

Alternative to bills

The explicit quid pro quo is outlined in a Feb. 27, 2006, memo signed by Kittleman and Sgt. John Zagraiek, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 34, which serves members of the agency's police force.

In it, Kittleman said she was proposing full funding of a "personal patrol vehicle program" as an alternative to legislation before the General Assembly permitting collective bargaining between the police department and a union representing the officers.

The memo explains that the authority police supported labor negotiations - a right recognized in most other Maryland police departments - as a tool for recruitment. The document states that the department believes the lack of collective bargaining is a competitive disadvantage in attracting top recruits.

At the time, the police force was headed by Chief Gary W. McLhinney, a former Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police president named to the state post after delivering the union's endorsement to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the 2002 election. McLhinney also served last year on the board of directors of the city police union. Like Kittleman, McLhinney was replaced soon after Gov. Martin O'Malley took office.

According to the memo, the authority police also regarded personal patrol vehicles as a significant recruiting tool. The document says that McLhinney sought full funding for a three-year phase-in of the personal vehicle program, but that the authority could not accommodate the request at the time.

The document details an agreement under which the authority agreed to include annual funding of about $3.82 million for the take-home car program in its next three budgets.

"In exchange, the FOP Lodge #34 will ask the sponsors to withdraw the collective bargaining bills and will agree not to support collective legislation in either of the following two years," it says.

General Assembly records show that Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr. and then-Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., the House and Senate sponsors, withdrew their bills shortly after the agreement was concluded.

The union's Zagraiek said the previous leadership of the authority didn't want to deal with the collective bargaining bill.

"We felt if we took this in lieu of collective bargaining, we could always go back to the legislature [to seek a bill] in three years," he said. "It was immediate. That's why we went for it."

Zagraiek said the deal was approved by the lodge's executive board but not announced to the membership. "We didn't have the time to go to all the members to get anything ratified," he said. "This was something that had to be done very quickly."

Zagraiek said he had talked with Porcari yesterday but declined to describe their conversation or react to the secretary's decision.

Porcari said that the agreement did not come up in the transition process and was only recently brought to his attention.

Kittleman, an Ehrlich appointee, said it didn't occur to her to raise the matter during the transition.

Programs common

Take-home vehicle programs are commonplace among local police departments in the state, but they are often justified in terms of the deterrent value of having police cars visible in the communities they serve.

The transportation authority police are responsible for the state's toll facilities, the port of Baltimore, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, stretches of Interstate 95 and other Transportation Department properties. Unlike local departments or the Maryland State Police, they are not responsible for law enforcement in residential neighborhoods.

"They don't typically have patrol responsibilities or law enforcement responsibilities or even authority in those jurisdictions," Porcari said.

But Kittleman said it is valuable to have any kind of police car in residential areas. "Crooks aren't necessarily that bright," she said.

Kittleman said she didn't oppose collective bargaining legislation because of anti-labor sentiments but because she preferred more informal give-and-take with union leaders.

Porcari voiced a different view. "This is an administration that supports collective bargaining," he said.

Last year's deal was brought before the authority's board, discussed behind closed doors, and ratified unanimously in open session, Porcari said. The previous transportation secretary and chairman of the authority board, Robert L. Flanagan, supported the agreement.

Porcari, the board's new chairman, said he will ask the panel to rescind last year's action.

Flanagan and McLhinney declined to comment.

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