Md. personnel panel's initial hearing exudes cooperation

Sun Staff

The tone was collegial yesterday as members of a bipartisan special committee to investigate state personnel practices pledged to work together to examine the last three governors' firing policies, not just those of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The tenor of the committee's first hearing in Annapolis marked a notable shift from the combative rhetoric of recent weeks, when Republicans threatened to walk out if the investigation was politically motivated.

"No matter what has been represented in the press, there are no predetermined findings of this committee," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and a committee co-chair. "We trust that all members of this committee are willing to be open-minded and fair."

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader from the Eastern Shore, promised his cooperation and the Ehrlich administration's - as long as the committee keeps its focus on an examination of state personnel policies and not the governor's hires and fires.

"They are eager to participate, as am I," Stoltzfus said.

During the hourlong meeting, a couple of obvious points of concern emerged as members started to hash out the details of a two-page resolution governing the committee's purview and procedures.

Lawmakers from both parties questioned the creation of a personnel category in the 1990s that gives the executive branch more flexibility in hiring and firing state employees. Some said yesterday that category should be examined by the committee.

"If there's been any unevenness in treatment of personnel, it's been because of creation of that category," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat.

Among about 78,000 state government workers, 6,804 serve at the pleasure of the governor and can be fired any time, according to a state budget document released yesterday. Within that category, it's unclear how many people have left their jobs or been replaced since Ehrlich took office in January 2003, and questions remain about whether those individuals departed of their own accord or were forced out.

But Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and committee co-chair, said the committee would not explore the legalities surrounding specific terminations - even if former state employees step forward to testify.

"It is not the role of this special committee to act as a court for individuals who were involuntarily [terminated] by this or any other administration," Jones said.

The contentious issue of subpoena power also was broached yesterday as Democrats asked for it in the resolution. Their request drew concerns from Stoltzfus and his Republican colleagues, who have said that the minority should have subpoena rights as well. (As it stands, a majority vote is required to issue a subpoena, and committee Democrats outnumber Republicans eight to four.)

Stoltzfus suggested that subpoenas for documents wouldn't be necessary at all if witnesses signed a waiver instead.

"I'm suggesting we use another alternative first, and that is request that an employee sign a waiver," Stoltzfus said.

But the Democrats said they might need subpoena power to request certain types of documents, particularly those containing confidential personnel information.

Still, Middleton said, "We hope we never have to issue a single subpoena."

A spokeswoman for the governor said the administration was pleased with the first committee hearing.

"On the surface it looks as if it's off to a fair and cooperative beginning," said Shareese DeLeaver, Ehrlich's press secretary. "Hopefully it'll stay that way in meetings for months to come."

The committee meets again Thursday morning to vote on any proposed amendments to the resolution and then on the resolution itself.

Del. George C. Edwards, the House minority leader, attributed the cooperative nature of yesterday's meeting to the Democrats' stated commitment to examine state policy above all. He said that if that focus becomes political, he and his colleagues will be forced to respond.

"If it starts to get in that direction, I'm sure you'll hear us loud and clear on it," Edwards said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad