The Harford County Council has approved a proposed charter amendment to remove job protections for deputy county department heads, even though several department heads and residents decried the change as overtly political and potentially destabilizing.
The proposal, which would change a deputy director's employment status from classified to exempt, passed by a 6-1 vote Tuesday night. The council also passed another proposed amendment expanding the scope of the county auditor's duties.
The proposed amendment must still be approved by voters in November's general election. If adopted, deputy directors would serve at the pleasure of the county executive, making them patronage employees, just like their bosses.
County Executive David Craig, who will leave office after more than nine years in December and who says he opposes the amendment, didn't speak at the public hearing, but other administration leaders said the change would disrupt their agencies' stability and make it hard for departments to transition smoothly during election cycles.
"Changing the status of the deputy status position will, in my opinion, cause more anxiety within the department and could erode the efficiency of the government," Procurement Director Deborah Henderson told the council, noting she is a "30-year veteran" of the department and has "seen first hand the turmoil" that departments face during a change in county leadership.
Treasurer Kathryn Hewitt also said the deputy has many highly technical responsibilities, and letting that person become exempt, or an at-will hire without protections under the county's classification system, would mean "much less stability."
"I am a strong believer that the deputy should be a well-qualified professional and should not be influenced by political concerns," Hewitt said. "I have additional concerns as director that if my deputy is confirmed by the council, that person may feel they truly just report to the county executive and go around me if they don't like discussions with me."
Bob Greene, a Havre de Grace resident, testified he opposes the change, saying it would over-politicize the process of hiring employees. Greene served as the county government's human relations director in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Morita Bruce, leader of Friends of Harford organization, said having a county agency run by two political appointees, could leave it without anyone who knows the history or inner workings.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is just more…political patronage jobs handed out to whoever the guy wants," Bruce said.
She noted that in the Army, where she worked for more than 30 years, agencies typically had both a military head and a civilian head, with the military head changing every three years.
"I've seen what that does to agencies," she said, explaining it takes even "absolutely wonderful" military leaders a year to "get their feet on the ground."
"By the third year, they were on a roll, and then they left," she said. "That's what we could have here."
Bruce called the move "risky" and said she sees "absolutely no benefit for Harford County and, frankly, I do not see any additional transparency."
Council President Billy Boniface had released a written statement earlier saying that the amendment "will create more transparency in the selection process and increase accountability of those appointed to carry out their duties."
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti was alone in voting against the amendment, saying she is "vehemently opposed" to it.
Lisanti said she knows how hard it is to make decisions that are not political, and career service government employees are "the people you rely on every single day...to enforce the laws, whether they like them or not."
"The idea of making these positions suddenly exempt and thrown into a world of politics is just bad business," she said. "I am not casting any disparity upon anyone that is appointed or receives their job on their merit or professional skills, but I think this is ill-advised, just the wrong way to proceed."
Lisanti added she was "very sorry" that many deputy directors in the room did not have the courage to speak to the council, but many had told her personally they feared for their jobs.
"That is horrible," she said. "Suddenly we throw their career jobs into the political spectrum."
Boniface said he respected her opinion and noted she has worked in the public sector her whole life.
He said the workforce will still be classified; only the leadership would be exempt.
"Change is difficult," Boniface said, before adding: "Change is good. It challenges us... to grow and that's what we are supposed to do."
He said the bill is not "about individuals" but about efficiency in government.
Boniface, who is leaving the council when his term expires in December, is closely aligned politically with Sen. Barry Glassman, who is running for county executive and is considered the clear front runner to replace Craig.
Glassman said Tuesday afternoon he had no hand in crafting the amendment. Both he and Boniface have pointed out the change was recommended by an earlier committee on government efficiency set up by Craig.
Glassman said, however, that he does support the change, explaining he wants to see a "generational change" of greater efficiency for county government.
"For me, it will give me some flexibility for efficiency and make sure folks are being responsible and accountable," he said.
Glassman also said similar positions in state government are exempt and added the change would help better deal with vacancies and eliminating positions if need be.
"It will give the next county executive some leeway whether all these positions need to be filled," he said. "I think the next county executive, whoever it is, is really going to have to look at the size of these departments and see if we need everyone."
"I do see this as kind of a generational change, so folks can look to leadership changes in most of the departments," he said.
By "generational change," Glassman said he did not mean targeting older employees, just general inefficiencies in government. He also said he did not have specific individuals to be let go or positions to be cut.
Like his two department heads who testified before the council, Craig, who is running for governor, said he is concerned the proposed amendment will create future transition issues for his successors, even though he conceded Glassman is squarely behind the amendment.
Craig said many existing deputy directors are likely to consider retiring, rather than face the uncertainty of holding onto their jobs.
"My view is you can fire anyone if they aren't doing the job," he said, noting his administration done just that with classified employees when the situation warranted.
More power for auditor
The second proposed charter amendment approved by the council Tuesday would empower the county auditor to conduct operational and performance audits of county agencies.
The auditor, a position created by a previous charter amendment, is authorized to perform financial audits. The auditor is a county council employee.
County Auditor Chrystal Brooks said the amendment was recommended by an audit advisory board appointed by the council.
This amendment will also be this subject of a referendum in November.