'Government by snit'

February 07, 1992

After a welcome hiatus, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is up to his old peevish tricks again. This time his ire has cost the state of Maryland $260,000 in federal funds that would have been used to protect the interests of the mentally ill.

What annoyed the easily annoyed governor is that the legal group that would have received the funds is anathema to him. That's because the Maryland Disability Law Center is an aggressive protector of the rights of the mentally ill. It often goes to court to force the government to improve living conditions in its state hospitals. The governor doesn't like that. He'd rather find a quiet compromise than engage in a bitter and time-consuming court battle.

We can understand Mr. Schaefer's irritation at the law center's tactics. We agree with him that this group and other legal assistance organizations for the poor and the disabled are too quick to file suit instead of negotiating with the state to achieve their goals. Yet the state bureaucracy can be maddeningly obstructionist. It is overly protective. And it tends to be insensitive to complaints unless an advocacy group is threatening to file suit.

The governor's failure to sign a release form designating the Maryland Disability Law Center as recipient of funds to defend the rights of the state's mentally ill is unprecedented. He is the only governor in 50 states to act vindictively. Even worse, this could mean the loss of another $1.2 million in federal funds. Mr. Schaefer's actions will only hurt the very people he says he wants to help.

There's a better way. If the governor and the law center cannot get along, the state can take steps to replace the group as the representative for the mentally ill. It is a drawn-out process, but it would achieve the governor's objective without disrupting the legal protections of people in state hospitals.

One advocate for the disabled called Mr. Schaefer's action "government by snit." It needn't be that way. The governor has a legitimate complaint that the law center should be willing to consider. But the message has been delivered. It is time to relent and sign the release form freeing the $260,000.

Government's treatment of people in state hospitals ought to be monitored by a responsible outside group. Even if it sometimes means taking the state to court.

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