It has been called "the biggest success story in state government" and "the sleeper of the year."
For once, it seems, government has done something right.
The result: a streamlined system, savings to the taxpayer and a quasi-judicial agency praised for its fairness.
Yet few outside of state government have ever heard of the Office of Administrative Hearings. The name itself smacks of bureaucratic gobbledygook. But the job it is doing is important and a vast improvement over the badly flawed system that preceded it.
The way it used to work, each state agency had its own set of rules to handle personnel grievances, charges against employees, motor vehicle violations and hearings over patients' rights in state institutions.
Hearing examiners were house captives -- dependent on following their bosses' wishes if they wanted to get ahead.
The result was a system in which state workers felt the deck had been stacked against them. Often it had. The objectivity, fairness and qualifications of hearing examiners to pass judgment were open to question. One legislator described the system as "a shambles."
A broad coalition of alarmed interest groups -- ranging from the state bar association to state employee unions to the Chamber of Commerce -- pressed the governor to appoint a study group. It recommended junking the old system and establishing the OAH.
Over strong objections from entrenched bureaucrats, the General Assembly passed the bill, and the governor, despite his initial misgivings, signed it.
In its first year of operation, 1990, OAH proved a smashing success, with some agencies now eager to throw far more civil adjudication cases to these administrative law judges.
Because the OAH examiners are clearly independent of state agencies, workers know they will get an impartial hearing. And because the OAH has enhanced training of these hearing officers, they are far better versed in administrative law. Uniform procedural standards have been set up. Both sides now feel they get a fair shake.
Much of the credit for this turnaround goes to John W. Hardwicke, the veteran Republican who stepped down as president of the Harford County Council to set up the OAH from scratch.
Not only has he whipped the hearing officers into shape with solid training, but he has also managed to cut the operating budget by $1 million and reduce the number of hearing examiners from 73 to 68 -- even while watching the workload of his office grow.
The Office of Administrative Hearings handled 60,000 cases last year. A centralized OAH meant a more efficient use of personnel, with examiners cross-trained in different areas of administrative law.
Starting this month, the office expects to handle another 1,200 cases a year from prison inmate grievances and forced-medication hearings at state hospitals.
Not all has been upbeat, though. Top officials in the personnel department and in the state licensing agency fought against the OAH from the outset.
Personnel Secretary Hilda Ford, in particular, has been vehement in her opposition, strongly urging the governor to veto the bill creating the OAH (she failed) and another bill this year to broaden the scope of the OAH (she won that fight). Licensing Secretary William Fogle has been hostile, too. Bureaucrats hate to give up any of their fiefdom.
Still, the notion of a consolidated hearing office has worked. The OAH has become a national model for other states to copy. Many high-ranking officials believe this approach holds vast potential for quick and fair resolution of other non-criminal matters.
Far more motor vehicle cases, for instance, could be shifted to the OAH to help relieve long waits for hearings at the MVA. The Office of Administrative Hearings could also be a way to relieve overcrowded court dockets and cut the backlog of non-criminal hearings at prisons.
If budget problems don't get in the way, Mr. Hardwicke intends to vigorously pursue the cross-training program for hearing examiners.
He hopes, with the help of a computerized hearing schedule, to send one or two examiners out to Western Maryland to conduct a vast array of hearings for state agencies over a short period of time. That could greatly enhance the office's efficiency and speed the resolution of cases.
Too often, all we hear about government are the horror stories. We learn about the mistakes and costly missteps. "News" is usually defined as what's going wrong, not what's going right.
Here's one agencies that has gotten it right. Mr. Hardwicke and the OAH deserve a pat on the back.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.