Ecker rejects workers' pick for panel Executive chooses runner-up for Personnel Board; 'Government interfering'; Unusual for winner of employees' vote not to be appointed


Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has angered county employees by rejecting their top choice for representation on the Personnel Board, a powerful panel already dominated by Ecker appointees.

Robert Coggins, an investigator with the county's Office of Human Rights, was the clear winner in a tally of county employees and had the support of every county union.

But Ecker -- exercising a power rarely if ever used by Howard County executives -- instead selected the runner-up in the election, Chris McNamara, an employee of the county's public-safety communications office for nearly 19 years.

"What you've basically got here is government interfering with the election process, which is an absolute no-no, regardless of what the county code says," said Dennis Bittetoe, the current employee representative to the Personnel Board. His second five-year term ends this spring.

The county executive appoints four of the five members of the Personnel Board directly. County employees get to vote on the fifth member.

Ecker defended his choice, saying McNamara is more qualified for the Personnel Board, a five-member panel that hears grievances and appeals on matters such as terminations and reprimands.

He also said Coggins' job with the Office of Human Rights might conflict with serving on the Personnel Board, which sometimes becomes involved with the same cases.

But county employees -- beleaguered after years of cutbacks, tiny raises and growing workloads -- say Ecker disregarded their feelings, perhaps to punish Coggins for battling with his boss, Human Rights Administrator Jim Henson.

Details of that case are not public, but sources say that last fall the two clashed on a personnel issue that was appealed all the way to Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer.

Coggins declined to discuss his appeal publicly, but he released a written statement expressing disappointment over Ecker's rejection of him for the Personnel Board.

"I am more disappointed for the employees who extended their time and effort to participate in an election in the belief that, regardless of the charter, if their candidate received the most votes, he or she, as the employees' choice, would be chosen by the county executive," Coggins said.

In addition to grievances and appeals, the Personnel Board reviews legislation affecting employees, including the massive personnel overhaul that Ecker is developing.

A key element of that plan would give supervisors power to reward top performers with bonuses. Those decisions would be subject to Personnel Board review if employees who are denied bonuses appeal.

In picking the board's fifth member, Ecker has the power to choose any of the top three vote-getters from the employee election, but neither employees nor administrators could remember a time when the county executive had rejected the top choice.

"He's within his rights to do that," said John Paparazzo, president of the police union. "But why bother having an election? Appoint who you want."

Coggins had the endorsement of the Coalition Of Public Employees, an umbrella group of the county's unions.

He also emerged victorious among seven candidates in the February election.

Coggins received 316 votes -- 44 percent of the 721 votes cast.

McNamara received 212 votes, or 29 percent.

Rudolf Freund of the Department of Public Works received 66 votes.

Ecker interviewed the three candidates before choosing McNamara. His nomination goes to the County Council for confirmation -- usually a rubber stamp -- this month.

"I figured he had the broadest background," Ecker said of McNamara.

He also said that Coggins might hear cases at the Personnel Board that could conflict with his duties as a investigator for the Office of Human Rights. Employees can appeal Personnel Board decisions to the Office of Human Rights.

But employees say that Coggins' training as an investigator would have helped make him a thoughtful, even-handed member of the Personnel Board.

"It was only one vote [on the board]," said Dale Chase, president of the county's union of blue-collar workers. "It wouldn't have made a difference in the outcome. But I think the employees would have felt that their views were considered in some kind of way that would have had integrity."

Debbie Bloom, a County Council clerk who worked with Coggins in the Office of Human Rights for several years, said he had the right experience and temperament for the Personnel Board. She said Ecker's decision hurts the already-low morale of county employees.

"I was shocked, especially when I had heard how much Bob [Coggins] had won by," Bloom said. "That's who the employees wanted."

But Ecker dismissed complaints that he had thwarted the will of county employees.

"Change the law," he said. "The law did not envision taking the individual who got the most votes automatically."

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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