Bill Changes Rules On Pension Appeals
County officials say the proposed changes make appeals more efficient, professional while critics say the county is stacking the deck in its favor.
A proposal to change how some pension appeals are dealt with in Baltimore County has some crying foul.
Don Mohler, a county spokesman, said the goal is to improve efficiency and provide another layer of hearings for employees while at the same time improving the professionalism of the system.
"These are complex issues," Mohler said of the pension appeals.
Labor groups say the county is looking to rig the process in its favor after a number of decisions that have gone in favor of employees.
"We're fixing a system that doesn't appear to be broken," said Todd Schuler, an attorney representing the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees. "It's the opposite of efficient."
The Baltimore County Council is scheduled to discuss the bill during a work session at 2 p.m. Tuesday. A vote is scheduled for Feb. 19.
Currently, the seven-member Board of Appeals is responsible for hearing the appeals involving pension benefits and disability claims. The proposed change would move those appeals to a pair of quasi-judicial hearing officers, positions that were created and appointed by Kamenetz shortly after he was sworn-in in 2010.
Schuler said county officials "can't point to an inefficient system and they can't point to an unfair system and these should be the basis for changing the law."
Mohler said the changes make the appeals process more efficient.
"The county executive is always trying to make county operations more efficient," Mohler said.
But there are trade-offs.
First, the administrative law judges would set the record for the case. Appeals would go to the Board of Appeals, which would be limited to the transcript from the original hearing rather than holding its own hearing. Schuler and other attorneys said that record is frequently limited to audio recordings of the hearings which are not consistently audible.
Schuler said county employees will also likely have difficulty obtaining public records needed to make their case.
Poor audio quality or the lack of a recording would not be a basis for an employee winning an appeal of an administrative law judge's decision.
""It won't give employees an extra bite at of the apple," Schuler said. "It will take the one bite they have and put [employees] in a position where it will be difficult to get information and difficult to call witnesses," Schuler said. "It will seal their fate before they even get into the new process."
Also, county employees appealing their disputes with the county cannot compel witness testimony in the administrative hearing process because it lacks the same subpoena power as the Board of Appeals.
Schuler said the changes add up to an attempt by the county to change the rules after losing several cases at the Board of Appeals.
"It's about winning," Schuler said. "They're changing the process to make it more beneficial to the county and less beneficial for county employees."
Last year the county asked the General Assembly to pass a bill that would affect how the county calculates reductions in pension benefits for some state employees who bring their pensions with them when they work for the county. County Administrative Officer Fred Homan acknowledged that the bill would specifically affect the case of Brian Rowe, a former county auditor, who had won his appeal both at the Board of Appeals and a circuit court hearing.
In another case, William Galanti, a 30-year county highways employee, won his case in front of the Board of Appeals. The board said Galanti, 71, had been fored into retirement and that the county unfairly changed his status to a disability retirement and attempted to cut off separate workers compensation benefits related to an on-the-job injury.
Galanti is now suing in federal court.
"This is not in any way related to any specific case," Mohler said. "I think from the beginning that the executive had an interest in making the Office of Administrative law more similar to the to the kinds of hearings that would heard in an actual courtroom."
"There's no magic to this timing," Mohler said.
Mohler cited the legal experience of the two administrative law judges—John Beverungen, a former county attorney, and Lawrence Stahl, a former private practice attorney.
Six of the seven members of the Board of Appeals are also attorneys. Mohler said the change is needed because there are no requirements that board members be attorneys. He said the county preferred its proposed change to requiring that board members be attorneys.
"We thought this was the better way," Mohler said.
Schuler disagreed and said this bill is not the first time the county has tried to use legislation to change an outcome of an appeal.
The bill affecting the Rowe case would have preempted a decision by the Court of Special Appeals that ultimately went against the county.
Also last spring, the county asked the council to approve a bill that changed the pension calculation for one group of employees. Unions complained that the county was attempting to change through legislation what it could not change through contract negotiations. The council ultimately tabled the bill.
Mohler declined to answer questions about the timing of the current proposed legislation.
"I gave you the rationale," Mohler said. "It is what it is."