Lawmakers ask County Council to postpone vote on retirement appeals bill

State lawmakers are asking the Baltimore County Council to postpone a vote on a measure that would change the way public employees may challenge decisions on retirement benefits, saying it could violate state law.

All but two members of the county delegation to Annapolis signed a letter circulated last week by labor leaders. They are asking the council not to vote on the bill until the General Assembly is briefed on its legal implications.

Lawmakers said they also want to hear from the state attorney general on the measure.

The council is schedule to vote Tuesday on the bill proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to change the process employees follow to appeal decisions of the retirement system's board of trustees.

Under the current system, if people disagree with a ruling of the trustees, they file with the Board of Appeals, whose seven members are appointed by the council. Kamenetz wants to change that so that appeals first go to one of the Office of Administrative Hearings' two judges, whom he appoints. From there, any further appeal would go to the Board of Appeals.

Several unions representing county employees are fighting the proposal, saying the current system is fair and efficient. They call the proposal a power grab by the administration, and say the bill could violate a part of state law that spells out the duties of counties' boards of appeals

"I'm unaware of any pressing issue that would require action now, so to table this until we get an attorney general's opinion only makes sense," said John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees.

Del. John Olszewski Jr., who chairs the county's House delegation, said lawmakers want clarity on legal issues, though the matter "is very clearly a council decision."

"I'm not trying to tell the council that something is good or bad," he said. But because there are legal questions, he said many delegation members want a legal opinion before the council votes.

Ripley said the union had been unable to discuss the matter with the two lawmakers who did not sign the letter, Del. Delores Kelley and Sen. Ed Kasemeyer.

County Attorney Mike Field contends the bill would not conflict with state law or the county charter.

But in a sometimes heated council work session last week, Councilwoman Vicki Almond said she had concerns about the proposal.

"I don't understand why adding another layer to the process is going to improve the process, or how it's going to be less expensive for the petitioner," said Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat. "I really find that this [current system] works, and I don't understand why it has to be changed, and why the timing of it is now."

Field said the board of appeals is slow at issuing decisions, and the Office of Administrative Hearings could finish the cases faster.

"Hopefully this decision will come out a lot faster than the six to nine months that we're used to seeing," Field said at the meeting.

Union leaders told the council that workers have no problem with the timeliness of the current set-up.

"I represent employees in Baltimore County, and I'm here to tell you, 'Thanks but no thanks,'" Ripley told the council. "There is a system in place that works."

Ryan Genovese, a representative with AFSCME Council 67, said he goes before the administrative law judges regularly for grievance matters, but he questions if they could handle the added work load along with their other duties dealing with matters of development, zoning and other issues.

"We have no problem with their work," he said. "But it is very hard to schedule because in addition to our grievance hearings, they have many other duties...Adding additional responsibilities to a very small office is going to slow down the process."

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