The decided Tuesday to appoint an outside attorney to represent the county in challenging the Montgomery County Police petition to put some bargaining rights to a public vote.
The issue revolves around "effects bargaining," and prior to the , such as how officers are given new assignments and how to implement a new computer system used by employees.
Since then, the gathered 34,828 signatures to take the legislation to a referendum in the 2012 general election. If the police are successful, voters will be asked if they want to restore effects bargaining.
The group needed 30,234 signatures, 5 percent of the county's registered voters.
Jonathan Shurberg of Silver Spring will assist the county's legal challenge of the petition. Shurberg will begin a fact-finding mission that looks into the validity and procedure of the police petition efforts, and whether the Montgomery County Board of Elections was correct in passing the petition to referendum.
"I want to be clear that Montgomery County Board of Elections did the best job that it could. My question ultimately is did they do it right," Shurberg said to the council.
Council members are concerned that signature seekers gave inaccurate or incomplete information.
Shurberg's appointment was approved with a vote of 8-1. Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) disagreed with the council's challenge of the petition, but said he stands by the county's previous decision to remove effects bargaining.
"I stand by my vote to repeal effects bargaining," Leventhal said. "The misgivings that I’m expressing do not suggest that I have misgivings on my vote on effects bargaining."
Leventhal took issue with what he considered the council's decision to challenge voters' rights with unsubstantiated and anecdotal evidence, using an unspecific "boilerplate" legal challenge.
"It seems to me that when 35,000 people have signed a petition suggesting that something should be put before the voters, utilizing existing law, that the council should respect that," he said. "Indeed, that very same point was made a year ago by one of my colleagues who was very critical of the Board of Elections for rejecting another petition that had garnered 30,000-some votes."
Leventhal is referring to an August 2010 op-ed that Councilman Phil Andrews (D-Dist. 3) wrote for the Washington Post chastising the elections board for rejecting a petition to put the county's ambulance fee law on the November ballot for vote.
"The board disqualified thousands of legal signatures—the signatures that people use when signing checks, wills and contracts—because they didn't include a middle initial or because they didn't match the format of the person's printed name on the petition or because the signature wasn't a readable cursive version of the printed name," Andrews wrote. "Something is seriously wrong when the legal signatures of voters are thrown out in the name of preventing fraud."
Andrews says that the two petitions can't be compared.
"They're completely different issues," he said. "The ambulance fee was legibility of signatures, which was a technical issue. For me the issue [now] is whether the [police] petition itself was misleading."
With the council's go-ahead, Shurberg will begin a broad investigation of the petition's circulation to find any misleading information or inaccuracies in the signatures.
"If there is cause for us to move forward into a court case then that's what will happen," said Councilman Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2). "This is just the beginning, just information finding at this point, and that's why it's so broad based. They want to make sure they've not left any stone unturned and make sure that this was done the way it should be done."
"This council owes its people and its FOP an honest and transparent discussion," said Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large). "The public deserves accurate information. Our job is to insure that the conversation is above board, is honest and is transparent and I think this initiative will achieve that."