Montgomery County sues Board of Elections over police referendum

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Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye
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  • Montgomery Co law to cut back on police bargaining rights heads to voters (11-21-11)
  • The Montgomery County government is suing the county Board of Elections following the board's decision to let residents vote on a bill scaling back collective bargaining rights for the police union.

    The bill, passed unanimously by the council in July, restricts the Fraternal Order of Police's ability to engage in what is known as "effects bargaining" and amounts to the ability to dispute all management decisions -- an ability not shared by the other county government employee unions. Under the bill, police retain the right to bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions.

    Effects bargaining prevented Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger from making necessary decisions, he told the County Council in July. For example, the department spent 170 hours bargaining over a new electronic incident report system, Manger said, and could not require police officers to check their email daily.

    Shortly after the bill passed, the union began collecting signatures to bring the bill to a referendum. The Board of Elections validated 34,828 signatures -- just more than the 33,000 needed -- earlier this month.

    The lawsuit filed Monday in Montgomery County Circuit Court challenges the validity of those signatures. Montgomery County Council members are concerned that the police gave residents inaccurate descriptions of the bill to convince them to sign the petition, council members said Tuesday, offering anecdotes about misinformation their constituents had heard.

    To investigate the signatures and claims of misinformation, the council voted 8-1 Tuesday to bring in Silver Spring lawyer Jonathan Shurberg as outside legal counsel for $225 an hour.

    "It's either on the ballot or it's not on the ballot," Shurberg told The Washington Examiner, explaining that the case can't be settled. If he does not find evidence to suggest that the signatures are invalid, the county likely would withdraw the case.

    Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large, voted against Shurberg's appointment, citing concerns that the lawsuit, which was filed quickly to fit inside the 10-day window for appealing Board of Elections decisions, was filed too hastily and that the council should respect the 34,000 residents who signed the petition. The council instead should spend the next year educating residents about the bill, he said.

    However, council members could spend more in "personal resources" engaging in an educational campaign than they are spending on the lawsuit, said Councilman Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda. By hiring Shurberg, the council is exploring its options.

    "This council owes its people and the [Fraternal Order of Police] an honest and transparent conversation," said Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, D-at large. "This initiative that's before us is the only way to advance that."

    Fraternal Order of Police President Marc Zifcak did not return requests for comment.

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    Rachel Baye

    Staff Writer - Education
    The Washington Examiner