Plan to shift merit jobs under attack Balto. County workers see Ruppersberger's idea as power grab


Angry Baltimore County employees vowed yesterday to wage an aggressive campaign against the Ruppersberger administration's proposal to strip 75 top jobs out of the county's merit system, saying the move is only the latest assault on the system's integrity.

Workers say County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger already has sidestepped the county's laws by replacing merit system workers -- ranging from public works bureau chiefs to code enforcement inspectors -- with so-called part-time appointees.

Although previous executives have tried for years to circumvent the sometimes cumbersome civil service merit system, Ruppersberger has been more aggressive, they say.

"This administration has gone a step farther than anyone else," said Ronald E. Harvey, chairman of the supervisory, managerial and confidential employees, told county workers during an emergency meeting yesterday as he urged them to lobby the County Council.

"History has shown that jobs are reorganized out of existence. People are forced out," he added.

But Ruppersberger denied yesterday that his administration is trying to undermine the merit system. "We're looking for performance. My department heads have said,'You hold me accountable but I can't hold others accountable,' " he said.

"The only thing we're trying to do is get the best people to run the government at the highest level," he added. "The days of political spoils are over."

Ruppersberger asked the County Council last week to approve a much broader charter amendment, exempting all the county's supervisors, but backed off the proposal Friday after employee protests.

What the executive sees as a way to gain vital control of key jobs, the employees see as a naked grab for political power that could have devastating implications. They warn of a return to the political spoils system that controlled virtually every government job in the first half of the century.

After World War II, Harvey and others said, the patronage system was so dominant that campaign contributions were automatically deducted from workers' paychecks.

In 1956, after a series of zoning corruption scandals, Baltimore County voters approved a charter and home rule government which set up a merit system.

"The original intent was to limit the number of political appointments severely," said John A. Donaho, a consultant to the original charter board in the mid-1950s.

Under the current system, people in the 75 jobs targeted by Ruppersberger may be fired only for cause. As appointees, however, those workers could lose their jobs with a change in county leadership.

About 20 percent of the county's 7,000 workers are exempt from the merit system, a proportion that hasn't changed during the past five years. However, about 30 additional high-level and middle-management jobs have been exempted since Ruppersberger took office in December, 1994.

Since the recession forced layoffs of nearly 300 workers in 1993, county employees have been on an emotional roller coaster ride of reorganizations, retirement incentives, static salaries and constant fear.

Against that backdrop, more than 100 of the county bureaucracy's managers gathered yesterday to organize quickly a campaign to defeat Ruppersberger's request that an amendment in the county's charter go before voters on the Nov. 3 ballot. The council must decide by Aug. 3.

"Who do you think is going to get laid off if it's between political people or you?" asked Harvey, whose group has no bargaining power but represents nearly 700 people.

Workers say Ruppersberger and other executives have tinkered with the merit system in different ways. In some instances, the Ruppersberger administration has created one-person job classifications or changed titles.

In others, it has offered managers pay increases to leave the merit system voluntarily and become so called part-time employees, according to John Parham, the Fire Department's fair practices administrator. The county charter lists each job that is exempt from the merit system and hiring workers as "part-time" is one way to circumvent the charter.

"It's just another way of getting around the system," said Harvey, a 17-year county personnel specialist. "They don't compete. They don't take a test. They don't have to qualify. It's a clear violation of the charter."

However, county personnel director Anthony Sharbaugh said that the county's law office has recognized the hiring of "part-time" employees outside the merit system as legal.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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