Md. political appointments reviewed in report

The Baltimore Sun

More than two years after bitterly partisan accusations that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fired state workers for political reasons, the General Assembly might consider legislation to protect hundreds of midlevel employees who can still be terminated at any time.

That was one recommendation contained in a report by legislative analysts, who were directed under a 2007 law to review the state's personnel system and explore the possibility of bringing some management positions under the merit system. That system guards against political patronage when administrations change and sets out grievance procedures.

Of more than 55,000 executive-branch employees studied, nearly 7,200 are considered at-will workers who can generally be fired without cause, though many have no political or policymaking role.

Democrats, who control the General Assembly, accused Ehrlich's administration of abusing that power by terminating employees and hiring replacements based on political considerations.

Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton and Del. Adrienne A. Jones, who co-chaired a special legislative investigation into those practices, said they plan hearings on the report soon after the session begins this month. They said they might consider legislation.

"We're going to be looking very closely at the state's personnel system as a whole," said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat.

The report also recommends that each administration submit a list of political appointees every gubernatorial election year, similar to the federal "Plum Book." That data would be useful during transitions to new administrations, the report concluded.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who defeated Ehrlich in 2006, has not read the report, his spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday. But the Plum Book recommendation "seems consistent with an open and transparent government, which the governor is committed to," he said.

Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who heads the Senate Finance Committee, said that while political appointments are essential for an administration to ensure loyalty to its agenda, protections are needed for state workers with a more bureaucratic role to promote continuity and to offer a stable work environment for recruitment and retention.

"Without protections for midlevel managers, it seemed they were being fired at will, and that should not be the way things are being done," he said.

The report acknowledges that at-will employment "continues to be controversial" at the State House. While many Democrats contend Ehrlich's employment decisions were arbitrary and unfair, Republicans maintain Ehrlich officials did nothing illegal.

Among other recommendations: A reassessment of whether skilled and professional employees who are special appointments, or essentially at-will positions, should be reclassified. It noted that prison chaplains, social workers and psychologists at the Patuxent Institution corrections facility are designated as special appointments.

Baltimore Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.

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