A change to how county employees appeal pension decisions was approved despite an 11th hour attempt to delay the final vote.
The Baltimore County Council Tuesday night voted 6-1 in favor of the legislation that moves the appeals process from a seven-member panel appointed by the council to one of two administrative law judges appointed by the county executive.
Almond, reading from a prepared statement, said the bill would affect the integrity of the council and "county employees for years to come." She said conflicting legal opinions offered by County Attorney Michael Field and county legislators in the General Assembly was reason to delay a vote while waiting for an opinion from the attorney general.
"This is a simple action that we, as a legislative branch of government, should take in this situation," Almond said before saying she understood she couldn't stop the bill but would be the lone vote against it.
Several county unions opposed the bill saying the current process was adequate and that employees were not seeking a change.
Todd Schuler, a former state delegate and attorney who represents the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, said the bill conflicts with the County Charter and state law. Last week the union sent the council a letter signed by 27 of 29 state legislators who represent the county. The letter asked for a delay so that the attorney general could weigh in.
Field said such claims were "bald assertions" and that no one had shown him case law or other legal opinions that the county law violated the charter or state law.
Currently, the seven-member Board of Appeals is responsible for hearing the appeals involving pension benefits and disability claims. The change moves those appeals to a pair of quasi-judicial hearing officers on the Office of Administrative Law, positions created and appointed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz shortly after he was sworn-in in 2010.
A county spokesman said last week that the intent of the change is to improve efficiency and provide another layer of hearings for employees while at the same time improving the professionalism of the system.
The council, before passing the bill, added three amendments.
The first, requested by Kamenetz, requires a hearing by the administrative judges within 45 to 60 days and a final decision within 15 days of the conclusion of the hearing.
A second, sponsored by Councilman Todd Huff, requires the county to pay for transcripts when either said in the case requests an appeal.
The third, sponsored by Councilman Tom Quirk, makes the unavailability of an audio transcript legal grounds for a reversal and allows the Board of Appeals to overturn the decision of an administrative judge if it is unconstitutional or the result of an illegal process.
Speaking after the vote, John Ripley, president of the county Federation of Public Employees, said he was disappointed by the vote.
"It's legislation that the county executive wrote based on wins and loses and that's not how legislation should be written," said Ripley, referring to a number of pension appeals in recent years that have gone against the county.
Ripley said the union will now await an opinion from the attorney general before deciding whether to challenge the new law in court. That law, with the expected signature of the county executive, goes into effect March 4.
The council also approved:
• A bill that limits signage in Towson. Councilman David Marks sponsored the bill in response to complaints about the signs for Double D Bail Bonds and Bail Bonds Inc.
The bill limits the height of signs for any business near the East Towson to 6 feet and prohibits the use of neon signage.
• The council unanimously approved that will allow residential development on an 800-acre parcel along Rt. 43 that was once slated for industrial development.
"This shifts the layout of various land uses away from regulatory orientation to one of function that also enhances revenue," said County Planning Director Andrea Van Arsdale.
Van Arsdale said the bill requested by Kamenetz, would allow high quality mixed use development in an area of Middle River that the county once hoped the area would attract businesses related to a federal realignment of military bases.
That development never materialized, Van Arsdale acknowledged last week.
The bill allows administrative law judges to waive any development regulation but requires a public hearing before doing so.
• A bill that allows businesses located in area zoned Business Local can sell products on the Internet provided it maintains a retail component that faces the street.
Councilman Tom Quirk said the change is needed to allow a chocolate manufacturer to locate in Arbutus. The manufacturer plans to sell the product primarily on the Internet but will use the retail area to allow customers to visit by appointment and learn the chocolate-making process.
"We wanted to make sure this ability was there while at the same time not taking away one of our regional store fronts," Quirk said.
This article was updated to correct a statement made by Councilwoman Almond concerning conflicting legal opinions she received on the bill. An opinion against the bill was provied to her by member of the Baltimore County delegation to the General Assembly.