A rotten system

The Baltimore Sun

About 7,000 Maryland state workers are classified as "at will" employees, meaning that they serve at the pleasure of the governor and can be fired at any time or for any reason. Governors have long used such plum appointments to bring in trusted aides to carry out their policies and to reward political supporters. But the spoils system is also subject to serious abuse when important posts are filled with unqualified appointees or when competent jobholders become the targets of partisan witch-hunts.

During the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who became the state's first Republican chief executive in decades when he took office in 2003, Maryland Democrats charged that's exactly what happened. Criticism of Mr. Ehrlich's termination of hundreds of state workers for alleged political unreliability and his appointment of several high-level officials with questionable credentials eventually led the Democratic-controlled state legislature to launch an investigation into the administration's hiring and firing practices, and later to order a report on its findings. That report, issued last week, suggests that some of the questionable aspects of the state's personnel law employed during Mr. Ehrlich's tenure may have found their way into the new administration of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, as Republicans have frequently charged since Mr. Erhlich left office two years ago.

And while analysts at the state's Department of Legislative Services concluded that abolishing political appointments "is not a realistic or even a reasonable option," the report also acknowledged that changes were needed to better insulate mid- and lower-level workers from political pressures and suggested that employees not directly involved in political activity or policy-making should receive additional job protections. It also urged Maryland to create a "plum book" of political appointments patterned after the federal government's job list to smooth the state's next gubernatorial transition.

These are reasonable suggestions that lawmakers ought to consider seriously when the legislature reconvenes this month. They also should mull whether the state really benefits from having up to one-tenth of its work force made up of political appointees.

Governors will always need to appoint top aides who can be trusted to carry out their policy agendas. But the majority of state workers currently classified as political appointees fill completely nonpartisan, non-policy-making positions. At one state prison, for example, the social workers, sociologists, physicians and psychologists are all "at will" employees.

That may be great for a governor's ability to distribute political largess, but it's rotten in terms of employee morale and keeping qualified, experienced professionals on the job. At least half of the current "at will" state workers probably could be reclassified as ordinary civil service employees with no loss of efficiency. If they're not involved in politics or in making policy, there's no reason they shouldn't enjoy the same rights and benefits as other state workers.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad