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Bring it on


MEMBERS OF the General Assembly are expected to soon finalize plans for an investigation into the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices. Within the State House, this is a topic of great interest. The inquiry was sparked by the now-infamous Joseph F. Steffen Jr.'s alleged role as a hatchetman lopping off the politically undesirable from state service. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. insists he is wholly innocent of ethical misconduct in this regard. As far as any investigation goes, the governor is fond of telling reporters, "Bring it on."

But Mr. Ehrlich's chief spokesman has recently taken a more vengeful tone. He is warning Democrats that any public inquiry into personnel matters will result in considerable discomfort for them. "Legislators are the ones who have abused the personnel system," Communications Director Paul E. Schurick says. "We have our own nuclear option. All the girlfriends and incompetent cousins who have been given state jobs" can be brought to light. Further, declares Mr. Schurick, the administration may forward some of these misdeeds to the authorities for possible criminal prosecution.

To that end, we can think of only three words: Bring it on. And not only for the entertainment value (although, heaven knows, there would be plenty of that). If the Ehrlich administration knows of misconduct whether by Democrats, Republicans or Left-Handed Anarchists, it ought to be brought to light. At the very least, voters deserve an opportunity to judge the facts. Democrats have that same responsibility. If there has been abuse of the state personnel system - and the 7,000 employees who serve in jobs classified as "at-will" but are not generally considered to be in patronage positions - that needs to be investigated without regard to the abuser's politics.

Clearly, it's time Democrats stopped posturing on this issue and made their case. But please, we don't need a witch hunt. What's required is a low-key, bipartisan approach. The core question should be this: Would government function more effectively if these employees were protected against the political whims of the next governor? If the finger-pointing can be set aside long enough, both sides might find that this exercise offers a legitimate opportunity to reform state government's personnel system - and accomplish something more productive than embarrassing a political foe.

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