The nervous smiles, the darting eyes, the too quick laughter -- such are the telltale signs these anxious days in the halls of Baltimore and Howard county governments.
"Each day, the rumors fly . . . I'm going to get the ax, I just know it," fretted one appointee who got a Baltimore County job from Dennis F. Rasmussen, the former county executive, and now fears a pre-Christmas firing by the new executive, Roger B. Hayden.
Top-level employees in Baltimore and Howard counties barely know what to think these days, a month after their bosses were voted out of office. Even though some signs existed that the incumbents were in trouble, many didn't expect Rasmussen's fall and fewer still foresaw the defeat of Elizabeth L. Bobo as Howard County executive. In Anne Arundel and Harford counties, at least, new administrations were expected because those executive seats were open.
"The anxiety of sitting around waiting until your number's up," that's the worst part, another in Baltimore County said. "Everybody keeps asking you," said another veteran appointed worker.
Of course, they don't want their names used. They get especially nervous just to see a notebook and pen out.
"What are you doing?" one asked. "I don't want to be in the paper saying anything." They agree to talk anonymously, only.
Most Baltimore County workers wanted to believe Hayden's initial post-election statements about no automatic firings. They've tried hard to convince themselves that since they've done a good job they'll be spared the political ax. At the same time, they say, they knew the risk of a politically appointed job. They just never thought they'd have to confront that risk so quickly.
"I need one more year to qualify for a pension," moaned one. "I thought I'd have a guaranteed eight-year job here. This is the worst possible thing that could happen to me financially."
Of course, there are others; county workers who backed the winner and are happy and have no pity for Rasmussen's people. They're having hallway conversations too, and mentioning names themselves, those they think will be history in a few weeks.
The confusion of a rough transition, fueled by the closed-door firings last week of six department heads and several Rasmussen staff members, has oiled an already primed rumor mill in Towson.
Even veteran appointed workers are worried, and some experienced merit system people who happened to work for someone who was fired fret that they'll be transferred to some distant department they hate, or that their jobs will be eliminated in budget cuts June 30 when the fiscal year ends.
In Howard, meanwhile, County Executive Charles I. Ecker has made fewer changes. He has replaced the planning director, after publicly lambasting him, and the secretary to the county executive and has cut two positions from the county administration.
Ecker has promised to reduce the size of government, but said he wants to accomplish that mostly through attrition.
Some Howard employees wonder if they're going to be victims of politics or victims of the projected $18 million deficit that Ecker faces. Many are asking co-workers and outsiders about the latest news.
"There is a lot of anxiety," one worker said.
But some employees are hoping the abrupt change brings good things, particularly the firings of bosses of which they're not fond.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," one hopeful employee said.