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.

(18) comments

LJF0929

We did research into this and voted against it - knowing it was putting all the stock into an arbitrator as opposed to getting stronger leadership within their union. Their union leader (I believe it is still the same one) is not a good negotiator. He did not seem to know how to use his collective bargaining. I know a lot of firefighters that stood behind this and I don't even know if they truly understood what was happening - they were so busy putting up yellow "vote for firefighters" signs and getting their wives to write sappy letters about not having husbands at home over Christmas. The focus was not aimed straight and now.....two years later.....nothing. If the firefighters union would stand in solidarity with the other unions in our area, they would get a lot further. Instead, they tend to vote for non-union-supporting candidates and don't seem to have a clear picture of what is really going on. Do I have the utmost respect and believe they should have competitive wages - you bet! But the union has to work from within....

mrnatural1

I missed this when it was first published.

There is nothing to fear from binding arbitration. An arbitrator is essentially a judge -- in fact in some cases they are retired judges. Arbitration is used all across the country -- to settle all sorts of disputes, including warranties and labor disputes.

An arbitrator is neutral. It's not as if the arbitrator will be a firefighters' union president!

The real question here is, do we want the firefighters to be paid *fairly* -- considering what firefighters make in other areas with a similar cost of living -- or not?

The impression I get from many people who are upset about this is that they are concerned about the possibility of increased taxes. If taxes do have to be increased as a result of binding arbitration, then that only means the firefighters were not being paid enough.

I do not agree with the idea that ALL first responders are automatically "heroes" simply by virtue of their job description. EVERYONE deserves fair pay -- at least a 'living wage'. All workers should belong to a union and have the benefits that go along with that membership -- including binding arbitration.

Arbitration is not about the union members 'getting what they want' -- it's about what is reasonable and fair.

To those that say an arbitrator should not be necessary -- suppose the county and the firefighters (or any group of employees) reach an impasse on wages and/or benefits. That could drag on for months or even years, taking county officials' attention away from other matters -- not to mention creating hard feelings. The logical solution is to have an arbitrator make a decision and then everyone can move on.

I see nothing wrong with both 'sides' presenting their case, and letting an arbitrator decide.

Psizzle

A disingenuous campaign..sounds familiar

Blueline

The solution to this is quite simple. Make any related tax increase optional. You should get a 73% compliance based upon the oft stated voter approval rate.

micky

Public sector unions are a bad idea, even FDR was against them.

phydeaux994

I don’t remember where I heard it but I understood that the binding arbitration could put an unintended burden on the taxpayers. But the Firefighters Union blanketed the County with signs. Our neighborhood turned yellow prior to the Election so they ran an intended disingenuous campaign using the “ how can you not vote for such a Nobel cause” ploy? It leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth and people will remember the next time the Firemen’s Union comes looking for a raise.👎

wran

Well, the next time the firefighters want a raise, all they have to do is require their demand be submitted to binding arbitration. The proponents of this binding arbitration were organized and mounted a campaign for the referendum to pass and the opponents were not. Where I voted there were dozens of pass the referendum signs and workers. There was no one opposing it. In my view, the public was bombarded and duped. I suspect that most voters had no understanding at all of what this referendum entailed. I thought it was a terrible idea on my first reading of it. I knew the county was no longer going to be in control of a portion of its budget . I wager that most citizens still don't know anything about this binding arbitration and probably never will. This is no way for a county to be managed.

FyremanEd

I have said it before and will say it again don’t blame it on people not knowing what they were voting for. It is your responsibility to learn and understand something before you cast your vote. We obtained the amount of signatures plus to get the question on the ballot. If you want to appeal it and get it back on the ballot, do what many of our members did and get out on the street and collect signature to make the change. I sure hope you whiners don’t vote in your presidential election the same way.

gabrielshorn2013

I will agree that it is the responsibility of the voters to know what they are voting on FyremanEd. However, they must be presented the entire picture in order to decide all of the implications properly. Of course, who doesn't say that they like Mom and Apple Pie? Nobody. But if you find out that Mom's a drunk, and the pie was made from wormy apples, you will get a far different reaction. The voters were sold an apple pie without knowing what went into it.

Frayou

I recall promoters came to my door advocating for this law. I specifically recall them indicating voters would not be jeopardizing emergency and/or ambulance services. This has yet to be seen or put to the test. I have much respect for the individual responders. I have much less for politicians or union leadership.

HappySeller2014

FNP, we need your investigative journalism BEFORE the elections! I had a sense there was some behind-the-scenes squirrely activity going on, but you have now confirmed it..a long time AFTER the election.

JustACitizen

As the editorial states, "Of course, most voters did not really have a clear idea of what Question D entailed," which is why the newspaper needs to inform readers and the general public IN ADVANCE of elections, not after the voting ends! This is one reason why local news should be important and could be useful.

KellyAlzan

Facts

KellyAlzan

Question D was counseled and guided by former county atty Maithis. The same individual that guided the county into the Landsdale fiasco. I said many years ago in the comments at this site, that I felt he was dispensing bad legal counsel. And I still feel the same today.

shiftless88

I can support unions and firefighters but c'mon; they are not a helpless workforce with no voice. They should be using the regular negotiating process.

Unknown123456

[thumbup]

gabrielshorn2013

Hear, hear Mr. Editor!!! [thumbup][thumbup][thumbup] We elected a County Councul to work through budget matters, not an "arbiter" Question D was a farce.

KellyAlzan

Totally off topic. Again, totally off topic. But I haven’t seen any LTE’S from Ba’Lane lately? Have you?

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