It was probably inevitable that the Frederick County government and the career firefighters’ union would end up squaring off in court over the implementation of the change in the county charter wrought by the Question D ballot initiative from 2018.
It also seems to be inevitable that, after thousands of taxpayer dollars have been spent, the county will probably lose the lawsuit.
Question D passed with more than 70 percent of the vote two years ago. It gave the union broader collective bargaining rights, and most importantly, required binding arbitration when the county and the union is unable to agree on a contract.
Binding arbitration is like the nuclear weapon of contract negotiations. If the county does not offer the money and other benefits sought by the union, the union can take its chances that the arbiter will give them more.
The county on the other hand has to pass a balanced budget, paying for all the services needed by county residents. It does not want to turn the power of the purse over to an unelected arbiter, and therefore, is more likely to agree to the union’s demands to avoid arbitration.
Of course, most voters did not really have a clear idea of what Question D entailed. The union cleverly did not put up signs asking voters to approve more rights and powers for the union. Its disingenuous campaign focused just on seeking support for county firefighters, never quite explaining how that support would manifest.
Who doesn’t support our firefighters? In that election, not surprisingly, it was less than 30 percent of the voters.
So, Question D was approved, but the County Council needed to pass legislation enabling the charter changes.
In the summer of 2019, County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater led a workgroup composed of union members, county officials and leaders of the county’s Division of Fire and Rescue Services to draft legislation.
Fitzwater’s bill went to the council in January and was passed 6-1, over the opposition from the union.
That legislation defined new rules for collective bargaining and set terms for involving a neutral arbitrator. But crucially, the legislation allows the County Council to reduce the funding that is ordered by the arbitrator.
The union argues that Fitzwater’s bill does not satisfy the definition of what county voters passed when they voted for “Question D.” They are probably correct.
In a case involving Anne Arundel County and its firefighters union, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that arbitrators’ decisions must be funded in that county’s budget process. Frederick firefighters modeled Question D after the Anne Arundel charter, so it is likely they will ultimately prevail in court.
But that doesn’t mean they are right.
Ordering elected officials to adhere to budget decisions issued by an unelected arbiter is the wrong way to run a government. If the union did not like the decisions of the county executive and the County Council, it should have asked the voters to elect other leaders. It should not have done an end-run by pushing for a charter change.
Perhaps the county should go back to the voters and ask them to change the charter again, this time putting budget power back where it belongs, in the hands of elected officials.