Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has a perception problem. Recent events have seen three of his high-level appointees packing boxes for futures outside county government. The first two -- William H. Howard Jr., formerly the director of economic development, and Daryl R. McBride, once the county's fire service director -- were admittedly pushed into resignation, rather than leaping of their own volition. Most recently, County Personnel Director Joanne T. Nelson resigned, apparently for greener pastures elsewhere.
All of this has more than a few people wondering whether Mr. Ecker is conducting a purge of his administration on the eve of an election year. A few politicians are also gleeful at the prospect of capitalizing on the situation by suggesting Mr. Ecker is a poor navigator of the ship of state.
It would not be the first time an executive officer has seen fit to make radical personnel changes in the year preceding an election, although the practice is more commonly seen on higher levels, between a president or governor and his or her cabinet. Conducting a purge early on gives opponents less chance to inflict severe political damage closer to Election Day.
No wholesale purge is happening in the Ecker administration -- at least not yet. Mr. Ecker has reassured other appointees that their jobs are safe, and he is unlikely to go back on his word.
Mr. Howard was shown the door by Mr. Ecker because he had run afoul of key members in the business community, something an economic development director apparently ought not do. Mr. McBride departed because of unspecified philosophical differences with the county executive. And as for Ms. Nelson's departure, it represents the garden variety job switch -- she got a more attractive offer from Provident Bank of Maryland, where she will be a vice president. Mr. Ecker, in fact, put a positive spin on her leaving as a "vote of confidence for the administration because she's in demand."
Still, two forced resignations are enough to spark gossip about the stability of the county administration, and a third resignation -- voluntary or not -- only fuels speculation among the cynics. Even if no other departures occur -- and Mr. Ecker insists he isn't expecting any -- he still must combat the perception of instability at the top.