Frederick County Council members spent a considerable amount of time Tuesday debating the meaning of two words in the county’s budget process: binding arbitration.

Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater (D) introduced legislation related to that issue to council members at Tuesday’s meeting, defining the terms collective bargaining, binding arbitration and impasse procedure should the county’s career firefighters union and county officials fail to reach an agreement at the end of their regular negotiation period.

The legislation was introduced in response to Question D, a ballot initiative that passed with more than 70 percent of county residents’ votes in November 2018 and required county officials to draft language defining more collective bargaining rights and binding arbitration.

Council members discussed Fitzwater’s proposal at length, and debated what “binding arbitration” meant in regard to the county’s annual budget process.

Councilman Kai Hagen (D) said it’s unclear whether the council should have the authority as part of the annual budget process to make monetary or other cuts to any offer a neutral arbitrator might make in favor of the county’s career firefighters union.

But Fitzwater said multiple times that the language fits what voters approved in 2018. Still, what binding arbitration means will likely be debated between the council and the firefighters union as the bill progresses.

The ballot question approved reads in part that an ordinance must be drafted “to provide by ordinance for binding arbitration by a neutral arbitrator whose decision must be funded in the County budget.”

Bryon Black, an attorney for the County Council, said Tuesday the county’s career firefighters union and county attorney’s office have differing interpretations of what that means when looking at the county budget process.

Related to that discussion, Billy Rossomondo, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3666, the county career firefighters union, told council members that he and others were concerned about some of the language in the proposal.

“As you have read, the various provisions of the proposed legislation that utilize the term ‘may’ when outlining the County’s obligations regarding collective bargaining are problematic,” Rossomondo said in reference to the collective bargaining section of the bill.

He added that Anne Arundel County passed an identical charter amendment in 2002, and the state’s Court of Appeals ruled in September 2012 that Maryland counties should consider binding arbitration part of their budgeting process.

Fitzwater’s proposal includes the parameters for a neutral arbitrator, a part of the ballot issue approved by county voters. That arbitrator must have a residence within 150 miles of Frederick, and must decide by March 1 on picking either the county or career firefighters’ “final offer.”

In that decision, the arbitrator must decide the offers’ impact on the county budget, limits on the county’s ability to raise taxes under state law and the county charter, and more than a dozen other factors.

The bill also proposes moving up the negotiation timetable between the county and union from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 of each year, to allow time for an impasse and for the arbitrator to select a final offer.

In another point of concern, Hagen asked if the arbitrator had to consider all items of disagreement during an impasse — even if both parties had agreed to some of them — whether that would affect the “best final offers” on the table.

But several county officials, including Black, said the point of the best final offer is to bring the two sides closer to each other on areas they disagree on. He and others admitted there’s risk for the parties involved.

“You’re hoping at that point that they’re very close,” Black said, later adding: “I can say, basically, both sides take a chance.”

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.

Steve Bohnel is the county government reporter for the Frederick News-Post. He can be reached at sbohnel@newspost.com. He graduated from Temple University, with a journalism degree in May 2017, and is a die-hard Everton F.C. fan.

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