This month I introduced a Council bill in support of our firefighters that I have been working on since the summer of 2019. I convened a stakeholder work group, including Stephen Jones, president of the career firefighter’s union, to provide input into the bill. This bill is the result of the Charter amendment passed in November 2018, commonly referred to as ballot Question D. That amendment requires the Council to pass an ordinance that allows our career firefighters union to negotiate working conditions and provides a process for binding arbitration should an impasse occur.
I am a union member (Frederick County Teachers Association) and I fully support expanding negotiations for firefighters to include working conditions, not just salary and benefits as the law currently allows. That’s why I proudly took the lead on this issue. I’m not alone in supporting firefighters’ rights — Question D passed with over 70% of voters supporting the question. I absolutely respect the will of the voters and I am committed to making sure that this bill is consistent with the Charter language they approved.
This bill does exactly what the text of the amendment, which was written by the union, requires. It makes significant improvements to the firefighters negotiation process, provides a framework for binding arbitration, and ensures that an arbitrator’s decision becomes part of the County’s budget process as outlined in the Charter.
It is important to note that our firefighters already had the right to unionize and negotiate a contract well before Question D. The effort to pass this amendment and the recent advocacy around the current bill includes statements that the firefighters need a “seat at the table.” As unionized employees, they have had a “seat at the table” even before Charter government began. In fact, in recent years, the salary increases of our firefighters often outpaced those of other county employees.
The union has concerns with the section of the bill that discusses the arbitrator’s decision and how it will be included in the County’s budget. They want the Council to go beyond the voter-approved amendment. This would mean funding the arbitrator’s decision regardless of the budget process that is prescribed to the Council in the Charter.
I have been accused of “playing politics with public safety.” But this isn’t political for me, it’s about what is best for Frederick County. And that means respecting the voters and the Charter language they voted for. The voters not only approved Question D in 2018, they also elected me and the rest of the County Council members into office with the expectation that we would make fiscally responsible decisions that positively impact our entire county.
This is the context in which the legislation was drafted. Yes, it is complicated. Yes, it has been challenging. But I happily took on that challenge because I support firefighters and the important role of unions in the negotiation process. The result is a bill that does three things: it supports our firefighters, gives the union a greater voice, and balances the needs of our first responders with the Council’s obligation to the voters and taxpayers.
Jessica Fitzwater represents Frederick County Council District 4. She is serving her second term on the Frederick County Council.