A Democratic Baltimore County councilman said yesterday that he was fired from a low-level state job in a political move orchestrated by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Vincent J. Gardina said that despite positive work reviews, he was told yesterday morning that he had been dismissed from his $56,000-a-year job as an engineer working on dredging projects for Maryland Environmental Service, a self-supporting state agency that provides water supply, waste purification and disposal for public and private clients.
"I was told the director of MES interceded with the governor to have me stay on the job. I am convinced it was entirely political," said Gardina, 47, who represents Perry Hall and Towson. "It went right from the governor, to the director to me. You have a director that's appointed by the governor carrying the governor's water and the governor's message."
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the governor's office does not comment on personnel matters involving specific individuals.
The firing occurs less than a week after a former employee in the Maryland Department of the Environment sued Ehrlich, alleging that the governor fired him for political reasons. Robin D. Grove of Pasadena filed suit in Baltimore Circuit Court on Wednesday claiming he was fired, effective on inauguration day, solely for being a Democrat.
Grove's attorney, Daniel M. Clements, said he has heard from several other people with similar complaints since news of Grove's lawsuit was made public Thursday. Courts in Illinois and New York have held that government workers, other than top-level officials, cannot be hired or fired solely for political reasons, he said.
The trick, Clements said, is proving the firing was political. But the Republicans who have taken over the state government since Ehrlich became Maryland's first Republican governor in 35 years have made that easier, he said.
"They've all made public statements saying, 'We're replacing Democrats and putting in Republicans,'" Clements said.
Gardina said he planned to contact a lawyer to see if he had any recourse.
His case is different from Grove's in that he was hired in April, months after Ehrlich was inaugurated. Gardina, who holds a master's degree in environmental engineering from the Johns Hopkins University, said his supervisors at Maryland Environmental Services knew he was a councilman but that his elected position wasn't a factor in his job.
Gardina said he had received positive comments from supervisors and clients and had been given additional job responsibilities Friday, which he said indicates to him that his superiors were happy with his work and didn't know he was about to be fired. He said he was also told the agency is not undergoing general staff cutbacks.
Like many elected Democrats in Baltimore County, Gardina was neutral in the last governor's race, endorsing neither Ehrlich nor his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Gardina did, however, run a hard campaign against James F. Ports Jr., a former state delegate and ally of Ehrlich, who challenged the councilman for his seat.
After the election, Ehrlich appointed Ports as assistant to the transportation secretary, a $112,000-a-year post.
"There were no problems with my work at all, and there were no cutbacks of personnel, so it had nothing to do with that," Gardina said. "I don't know if they can fire you on political grounds when you're not in a position to make policy. I was strictly an engineer."
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who heads the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he is taken aback at how brazen the Ehrlich administration has been about firing lower-level employees for apparently political reasons. It's particularly amazing, he said, that Gardina would be fired without reason so soon after the governor was sued over a firing.