Court: MoCo lawful in campaign to roll back police bargaining rights

Montgomery officials acted lawfully when they used taxpayer funds and employees on county time to campaign for passage of a 2012 ballot proposition that limited collective bargaining rights for police, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has ruled.

The April 3 decision, from the state’s second-highest court, reverses a 2014 circuit court ruling that County Executive Isiah Leggett and public information director Patrick Lacefield violated Maryland election law by launching an aggressive campaign in favor of the ballot proposition, known as Question B.

The measure outlawed “effects bargaining,” a provision of county labor law that allowed the police union to negotiate on issues beyond salaries, benefits and working conditions. The provision enabled police to push back during contract talks against basic managerial directives, such as requiring officers to check e-mail periodically.

In 2011, the County Council passed a bill barring effects bargaining. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 (FOP), in an attempt to preserve the provision, placed the matter on the 2012 ballot after a successful petition campaign. Montgomery voters approved Question B — eliminating effects bargaining — by nearly 60 to 40 percent in November 2012.

The county mounted a vigorous campaign in favor of Question B. Leggett (D) authorized Lacefield to spend up to $200,000 on mailings, bus ads and other methods to reach voters. County employees campaigned during work hours, according to court testimony.

Leggett and Lacefield said that state and county attorneys assured them that they were within the law and exempt from a state requirement to create a campaign committee to disclose sources of funding.

The court action contesting the county’s campaign tactics was brought by the FOP.

Circuit Court Judge Ronald B. Rubin said last year that although Leggett and Lacefield acted in good faith on legal advice, their campaign for Question B stepped over the line from communication to overzealous advocacy.

Rubin, in his decision, noted that county-operated Ride On buses had signs emblazoned with some version of the following statement: “Who Do YOU Think Should Run the County Police?”

“No court has suggested that a government may not spend money to inform the public about its initiatives or legislative enactments. Of course it can,” Rubin wrote. “But there is a world of difference between communications that inform, and communications that proselytize and try to influence the outcome of an election contest.”

Rubin added: “In this case, based on the court’s findings, the question is not even a close call.”

But the appeals court said that Rubin overlooked recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that it is within a government’s speech rights to campaign as the county did.

“The campaign here was undertaken by the County to advance a change in the law on a nonpartisan issue that would assist the County and its Chief of Police in best managing the police department. The county’s speech was political, but was permissible government speech,” the court ruled.

FOP Secretary Jane Milne said in an e-mail Tuesday afternoon that the union was “disappointed” with the decision but hasn’t decided whether to appeal.

“We will be reviewing the decision and will consider all of our options,” Milne said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.