As Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson concludes his last term in office, there are many who have a bad taste in their mouths about how he’s ending his tenure. Despite some of the gains the county has seen in school performance, public safety and commercial development, some are upset with the way Johnson has balanced the budget, which they say he’s done this at the expense of the 6,000-plus county employees.

The crux of the issue is the furloughs county employees have had to endure over the past several years. “We view the Johnson administration as starting off very strong and ending very poorly,” said Andrew Pantelis, president of the Prince George’s County Professional Fire Fighters Association. “We started to make some strides in our working conditions and improving our staff and safety conditions at the beginning of his administration.

“However, after the midterm, we started to see decline. What’s been unfortunate is that this administration – with the exception of the current fiscal year – for the past couple of years has balanced the budget on the back of its workforce.”

But people around the county are miffed at the furor over the furloughs. They say they understand and are sensitive to the needs of the county’s employees, but that all decisions were made in the best interest of the county. “The county executive has been a tremendous supporter of Prince George’s County Public Schools for the past eight years,” said William Hite Jr., superintendent of PGCPS. “My fear would be that his educational legacy would be judged on the last year and a half when his ability to fund education was negatively impacted by state and county revenue.”

It’s an issue that led to a lawsuit that several labor unions, including the firefighters association and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, filed against Jack Johnson and the Prince George’s County government. The original judgment went in favor of county employees as Judge Alexander Williams Jr. ruled Prince George’s County should pay $17 million to the county’s employees. In that judgment, Williams ruled the furloughs as unconstitutional.

“While adequate deference must be accorded to the fiscal decisions of government officials, the Court cannot merely give lip service to the fundamental principles that undergird the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution,” Williams wrote. “To do otherwise, even in these severe economic times, would sanction the County running roughshod over the Unions, who in good faith negotiated a binding contract with the County.”

However, a federal appeals court in Richmond overturned that ruling on July 20. In his ruling, Judge Robert Bruce King wrote that the furloughs did not impair the collective bargaining agreements of the unions as they all have language that says furloughs are possible.

Union heads are disappointed about the decision, saying the county had plenty of funds in reserve to avoid the furloughs. They believe this was done to protect the county’s AAA bond rating, but the move will come at high political cost.

“In terms of the perception of Mr. Johnson’s endorsement, I think it’s a negative,” Pantelis said. “I think people are looking for a fresh start and a fresh face and not an extension of the past eight years.”

Johnson supporters refute this. They say that not only does Johnson have a record to stand on, they don’t even know why his name is being brought up in these discussions. “People are saying things that are totally fabricated,” said James Keary, spokesman for the Office of the County Executive. “What’s so amazing is Mr. Johnson isn’t even running for anything. I just wanted to set the record straight because he’s made tremendous accomplishments.”

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO