2021 | Government

County Council says report on police contract highlights need for transparency

Union contends agreement is clear, accessible for the parties involved

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After a report concluded that Montgomery County’s contract with its police union was not clear or transparent, County Council members are questioning the county’s system of checks and balances.

At the council’s request, the Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) report analyzed the county’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, which represents county police officers.

The office concluded that a third party trying to “read and understand the CBA will encounter several obstacles that combine to make the document unclear, uncertain, and opaque.”

A third-party reader is someone “other than those most directly involved in negotiation of the CBA,” the report said, referring to a collective bargaining agreement.

Several problems were cited in the report, including inconsistencies and conflicts with state law, county law, and council resolutions. The report also said hundreds of pages of appendices and side letters should have been online and available to the public. It mentioned outdated material, unclear references and a lack of transparency.

Several County Council members said Tuesday that they are concerned about the problems cited in the report and suggested that the council step in to improve the process.

In an op-ed piece Bethesda Beat published on Saturday, Torrie Cooke, president of the FOP Lodge 35, wrote that the Office of Legislative Oversight “badly” misunderstood the contract.

He wrote that the “executive branch not providing a complete copy of the agreement for public review cannot be attributed to the collective bargaining process or to the FOP.”

The collective bargaining documents are legal documents that need to be understood by the parties who are subject to them — the county executive and the FOP, Cooke wrote

“First off, nowhere in the county collective bargaining law does it say that a third party or the County Council need to be able to decipher all collective bargaining documents,” he wrote.

He wrote that the FOP is not responsible for the county’s “shortcomings.”

“Our job is to follow the collective beginning law and we’re doing our job,” he wrote.

Council Member Hans Riemer, who led the effort for the council to request the Office of Legislative Oversight report, said during a meeting on Tuesday that there is a general concern about what is in the contract.

“I think what you see here is a result of an organization, which is our police department, frankly being under siege for 25 years from a hyperaggressive legal adversary that uses every means at its disposal to gain control,” he said. “I think it’s very reasonable to separate our strong support to our officers who need our support — they need to know that we are there for them. … At the same time, not having a dynamic where the legal advocacy of the organization takes over the department, which I think has unfortunately happened in so many different ways.”

Riemer referred to Cooke’s op-ed during the briefing, calling it “shocking” that the FOP would indicate that the public and the council don’t need to understand CBA.

“Put yourself in a mindset to be able to write those words — that the public has no right to know, or need to know what is in our governing documents,” he said. “That is the mindset that we are dealing with and it is a huge problem.”

Council Member Will Jawando said the report was “eye opening” and that transparency is a basic element of trust and good community police relations.

“I think this warrants a significant review by the full council,” he said. “I found out, for example, the other day that the use-of-force bill we passed is being held up because things that are extraneous to it are trying to be negotiated as part of the updated use-of-force policy, which I didn’t even know was happening.

“What’s been negotiated, what’s been agreed to, the process by which it happened has direct impact on not only the public safety, but the trust and confidence that things are being done appropriately,” Jawando said. “It’s really not fair on either side of the officers who are bargaining and the members of the public.”

Many of the issues highlighted by the report were the result of “sloppy editing that had been crossed over for years,” Council Member Gabe Albornoz said.

“The fact that nobody caught some of the mistakes that were there, that I don’t think were there for nefarious reasons, calls into question the ‘checks and balances’ and administrative support that’s lent to such a critical process and that has to be done well and right,” he said.

Albornoz said systemic problems need to be addressed, particularly in making sure side letters — separate supplemental documents related to a contract — are well documented.

Council Member Nancy Navarro agreed that administrative work needed to be done to “clean up” the problems and that the need for transparency was “one of the most salient and glaring issues” that the council has to address.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.