Merit system shifts urged Ruppersberger wants to move high-ranking jobs from civil service; Charter must be amended; Balto. County leaders of labor groups angry over proposed change


In a move that has angered county labor groups, the Ruppersberger administration wants to change Baltimore County's charter to remove 75 of the highest-ranking jobs -- including police majors and colonels -- from the civil service merit system.

Administration officials say they want the bureaucracy to function more like a corporation, but employee leaders insist the move is a big step backward to the political patronage system that prevailed decades ago.

"You have two choices -- the merit system and the spoils system. It's never good for democracy when power concentrates," says Ronald E. Harvey, chairman of the supervisory, managerial and confidential employees, the group of county workers most directly affected.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is asking the council to decide whether the proposed change should appear on the Nov. 3 ballot, allowing voters to decide.

Under the current system, people in those 75 jobs may be fired only for cause. The proposal would permit those 75 workers to lose their jobs with a change in county leadership.

Because of employee complaints, the administration has backed away from a much broader proposal that would have allowed the council to remove all 670 supervisory, nonunion county jobs from the merit system.

"I don't want us to get people afraid," said Michael H. Davis, spokesman and policy chief for Ruppersberger.

"I can understand Dutch isn't going to be here forever," he said, alluding to fears of how future executives and department heads might use such a sweeping change.

But James L. Clark, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, and police union President L. Timothy Caslin remain skeptical about the proposed change, saying it would undermine opportunities for internal promotions and make government operations more vulnerable to the outcome of elections every four years.

"How would you compete?" Caslin asked.

Clark wondered, "Do we change management every four years?"

Harvey's group has scheduled emergency meetings tomorrow to discuss the measure, which is expected to be introduced before the council July 6. If approved by the voters, the amendment would allow a majority of the seven-member council to remove the jobs from the merit system.

Kathleen S. Skullney, director of Common Cause/Maryland, a private government watchdog group, says the timing of the proposal should raise questions.

"Anytime a charter amendment comes along at the very last minute possible, it should be suspect," she said, noting that August is the deadline for adding a referendum item to the November election ballot.

Besides the 12 police jobs, the change would affect four deputy fire chief positions and other general government managers, ranging from deputy directors to division and bureau chiefs.

School system employees, who are state workers, would not be affected.

County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan, Davis and some council members say the workers' fears are unrealistic. Legally, no current employees could be forced out of the merit system because none of the targeted jobs could be changed until it becomes vacant, Davis said.

He downplayed any danger of returning to a political spoils system: "I don't think things like that could happen in this day and age."

Sheridan said the change would give the police chief the flexibility to select the team he needs to run the department. The Maryland State Police and police departments in Baltimore, dTC Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago and New Orleans exempt high-level officials, he said.

"If the chief selects the wrong people, the council will go after the chief," Sheridan added.

Council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said he's willing to let the voters decide. "The merit system was approved by the voters, and any changes should be approved or denied by the voters. That's all we're doing," he said.

Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, backed the administration's call for more control over high-level jobs.

"I think you need some accountability in government. All it's really doing is legitimizing a process that's been occurring for years," he said.

Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican, isn't sure what balance to strike.

"It's always a double-edged sword. I have no doubt the present police chief is a fair and objective man," he said. "I have no idea who the next one will be."

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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