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Robey's ties to employees could become shackles


ONE CHORE facing Howard County Executive James N. Robey brings back memories of the first supervisory job I ever had. It was my last college summer job. I had graduated but was still looking for work as a reporter back home in Alabama. So, I applied for an assignment in the city of Birmingham's youth jobs program.

I had found work through the same program after my freshman year, running errands and assisting the staff in a rehabilitation hospital's audiology department. But the next two summers I found my own jobs; one year as a cashier in a Sears department store coffee shop, the next mopping floors and making beds as a housekeeper at a veterans hospital.

But my fourth summer job was different. My assignment was to supervise a half-dozen high school kids working for the building and grounds department of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The work was tedious. For several weeks, we picked up rocks in a vacant lot that was being cleared for parking.

The biggest thing I had to do was keep a bunch of bored teen-agers from leaving the job site and getting into trouble. To do that, I had to get them to see me as more than someone who looked, dressed and talked like them and who went home to the same neighborhood as they did. They had to see me as their boss.

Riding up front

The real building and grounds supervisors understood this better than I did. They insisted that I ride up front in the truck to a new job site. It was their way of signaling to the other fellows that I might be their friend, but I was also in charge. And the person in charge doesn't always make decisions that his friends like.

It shouldn't be necessary to remind Jim Robey of that. As police chief, I'm sure, he often had to make decisions that weren't liked by friends who had been in the department about as long as he had. But as county executive, he won't be able to blame a superior when "no" has to be the answer to a request that Howard County's police officers may make.

Not just police officers, but lots of other county employees see Mr. Robey as "one of us." They gave generously to his election campaign because he was a county employee more than 30 years before running for executive. He understands what it's like to be on their side of contract negotiations.

That knowledge can help Mr. Robey do his new job, but it's not the same job. He must make that clear when he tackles one chore that his predecessor, Charles I. Ecker, left for him -- completion of police wage negotiations, which have been stalled for months.

Vacation change

The police want more money. Mr. Robey should insist that any pay increase be tied to a change in the way officers' vacation time is calculated.

Police officers who work 12-hour shifts accumulate more vacation time than other county employees who work 12-hour days. The extra leave that officers receive has exacerbated scheduling problems for a department that has been understaffed for more than a year.

The police academy graduated 17 Howard County officers on Dec. 1, but that still leaves the 298-officer department about 15 positions below full staffing. Howard continues to lose officers to better-paying police departments, in particular Prince George's County.

A pay raise may help the department recruit and retain more officers. But if the 12-hour shifts are going to continue, the vacation policy should be changed.

A 6.5 percent raise

The police union said earlier that it might be willing to negotiate away the extra vacation time gained with the change to 12-hour shifts for a 6.5 percent pay raise. But even with a vacation policy change, that price is high, especially since other employees will demand similar treatment.

Although as chief he recommended the 12-hour shifts, Mr. Robey shouldn't be reluctant to return officers to 9-hour days if that is the best way to solve the problem.

The longer shifts were the officers' concession in exchange for being allowed to retire after 20 years. But if the longer shifts aren't providing the savings that they were supposed to, maybe they should be scrapped.

In making that decision, Mr. Robey's perspective must go beyond the parameters he would set for himself as police chief.

Critics during the election campaign said Mr. Robey wouldn't be able to transform himself from the "back-slapping, beer-drinking" pal of county employees into their boss. Wage negotiations will likely be the best test of whether such critics were right.

Mr. Robey says he didn't promise anything to employee union members for their vocal support and cash contributions during the campaign. But that doesn't mean the most county employees should expect from him is a sympathetic ear.

Mr. Robey can give county workers more than that. He can make decisions that reflect the experiences that he had as one of them but are in the best interest of every taxpayer.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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