Bill spells out hiring, firing role

The Baltimore Sun

After a yearlong legislative inquiry of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s personnel practices, the Senate approved two watered-down bills yesterday that clarify the hiring and firing authority of state agencies but do not reduce the number of at-will positions in Maryland government.

Most Republican senators voted for one of the proposals but argued that the measures, which require a review of the state personnel system, did not merit the time and money poured into the Ehrlich inquiry.

"With this bill I hope we close a sad, sad chapter in the history of this state," said Republican Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, who sat on the committee that completed the review of Ehrlich, a Republican. "Gov. Ehrlich followed state laws. There was never any other indication."

The Senate bills, which go next to the House Appropriations Committee, do not reduce the state's approximately 6,000 at-will employees -- one of the primary initial goals of many lawmakers. Instead, they ensure that the governor's Appointments Office does not overrule the personnel decisions of the Office of Management and Budget or state department secretaries. Under Ehrlich, the governor's Appointments Office -- which usually handles political designees -- was involved in the hiring and firing of workers who were not in policy functions.

One Senate bill also says that some state employees who fall under one category, special appointments, can be fired for political reasons -- if they are policy-makers, have access to confidential information or advise the department secretary directly. A report from the Department of Legislative Services Office of Policy Analysis indicates that there are about 3,900 workers who are special appointees.

"An administration should have a legal ability to hire and fire for political reasons," said Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, the bill's sponsor who co-chaired the special committee that conducted the investigation.

The bill also calls for the Department of Legislative Services, with help from the Office of Management and Budget and unspecified labor organizations, to fully review the personnel system and state laws governing at-will and special appointees. The secretary of management and budget would have to develop a process for notifying workers of their employment status.

The Democratic-controlled legislature's inquiry was prompted by the work of Joseph F. Steffen, Jr., a longtime Ehrlich political aide who was dispatched to state agencies to target workers for firing. Steffen placed a grim reaper statuette on his desk, and workers testified that his mere presence in a department prompted even longtime state employees to fear for their jobs.

Ehrlich administration officials distanced themselves from Steffen, calling him a rogue operator. But Ehrlich's staff testified that the governor had the right to fire -- without cause -- employees who fell within the at-will category.

Sue Esty, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the legislative proposals are a step in the right direction.

"The most significant aspect of this legislation is that there will be a thorough review of the large numbers of at-will employees in the state," Esty said. "You have clerical people that are in a vulnerable position in spite of the fact that they may have been exemplary employees."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley, said the new Democratic governor has not decided whether to sign the bills.

"Fundamentally the governor supports the goal of this legislation to protect the rights of state workers," he said. "The Department of Budget and Management had some questions about how the laws will be implemented, and we've been working in good faith with the legislature to address these concerns."

Though the committee's findings were not submitted to prosecutors for action, Ward Coe, a Baltimore attorney commissioned by the legislature to conduct the investigation, said the review determined state workers were fired illegally and for political reasons under Ehrlich. He noted firings at the Public Service Commission, which were executed without the approval of the full panel, as well as the termination of Vince Gardina, a politically active Democrat and former Maryland Environmental Services worker, who received a $100,000 state settlement as a result of his termination.

"It's really clear that even though this wasn't a trial, the facts established there were a number of illegal terminations," Coe said. "And there was an admission from a couple administration officials that they used political affiliation as a consideration."

The state paid $337,326 to Coe for his work, a point that rattled Stoltzfus and his Republican colleagues. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the review was fruitful.

"I think the Senate thinks it was a worthwhile effort to go through," Miller

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