Howard County Personnel Director Joanne T. Nelson resigned Wednesday, becoming the second high-ranking official within the Ecker administration to quit this week and the third to resign in the past two months.
The fact that her resignation quickly followed the forced departure of two other top administrators caused many employees to wonder if County Executive Charles I. Ecker might be conducting a purge on the eve of the 1994 election.
No such thing is occurring, Mr. Ecker said yesterday.
"I talked to people who serve at my pleasure" and told them not to worry, Mr. Ecker said. "Other department heads should not be concerned. The individuals that left abruptly had discussions with me for a long period of time."
Darl R. McBride resigned Monday as director of the county fire service, and William H. Howard Jr. resigned Aug. 16 as director of economic development.
Both men departed government the day they resigned and were given three weeks' pay.
The county executive last month named Richard W. Story director of economic development. Deputy County Administrator Cecil Bray is overseeing the fire service until Mr. Ecker can appoint an acting director.
Like Ms. Nelson, the departed officials had brief tenures, and all were hired by Mr. Ecker. None was a holdover from the previous administration.
Ms. Nelson's resignation came as a surprise to Mr. Ecker, who said, "I had no inkling of it.".
Ms. Nelson will remain on the job until Oct. 22. Afterward, she will begin work as vice president for quality management at Provident Bank of Maryland.
Seeking to end speculation about a shake-up, Mr. Ecker said yesterday that there are no problems within his administration, although some may seek to portray the recent departures as a sign of trouble.
"There is nothing rocky within the administration," he said. "People have various reasons for leaving from time to time."
In the case of Ms. Nelson, "Joanne's leaving is a vote of confidence for the administration because she's in demand," Mr. Ecker said.
"Contrary to a state of flux, others see the quality of people we have here and want to hire them," he said.
Ms. Nelson said she was concerned that the timing of her resignation might give the wrong impression but that it couldn't be helped.
"I'm not leaving here because I'm unhappy, but because the opportunity is too good to pass up," she said. "I am very excited about what we have been doing here, and that those things will continue."
Ms. Nelson said she will earn "slightly more" in her new position than she did as the county's $65,000-a-year personnel director.
Mr. Ecker hired Ms. Nelson in April 1991 to put together a program that would improve the delivery of county services.
She became the main force behind a government program called "Total Quality Public Service," and will continue to offer her expertise in a volunteer role.
"I still live here and I'm still available," she said. "I would love to help in any way I might. I don't want to be disconnected with the good things that are going on."
Deputy Personnel Director P. William Herndon will become acting director in Ms. Nelson's absence.
Mr. Ecker said he wants the office to continue advocating for employees, offering training programs to suit employees' needs, and designing flexible working hours for employees with special needs.
Mr. Ecker said he has not decided whether to hire permanent replacements for the fire director and the personnel director before the November 1994 election. He is worried that the best candidates for those jobs might not apply out of concern that they could lose their jobs if he fails to win re-election.