Even state's delegates are kept in darrk as result of Schaefer gag order Mum's still the word in state government

July 09, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- State legislators found themselves in the same spot as news reporters yesterday: unable to coax information from the zipped lips of the Schaefer administration.

Ten state health officials refused to address a House of Delegates committee about alcohol and drug abuse treatment programs, even though they had been scheduled to speak well in advance.

The reason for their noticeable absence?

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's "new policy on communication," said Del. Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Translation: the governor's week-old gag order.

Last Thursday, an angry Mr. Schaefer warned his Cabinet that no one in state government was to talk to reporters without clearing it with him or designated aides.

Yesterday, it also became apparent that state workers couldn't speak with legislators without the governor's approval.

Schaefer aides say the governor wants to make sure he coordinates the release of news. Practically speaking, however, his edict has brought the dissemination of information to a near halt.

Mr. Schaefer could not be reached yesterday because he was in Toronto reviewing the privatization of an airport there.

Apparently, the Maryland health officials could not obtain clearance in time for the Environmental Matters Committee meeting at 1 p.m.

Refusing to answer reporters' questions in a timely way is one thing, some delegates said, but refusing legislators is a different story.

"You've got to be kidding me. You mean department heads can't come down and tell us what they're doing?" asked an amazed Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Democratic delegate from Baltimore.

"We're the representatives of the people," said Del. W. Ray Huff, a Democrat from Pasadena. "They'repaid by the state. They have a duty to talk to us."

Mr. Huff said he believes state health officials misunderstood Mr. Schaefer's edict when they canceled their appearance yesterday.

Could that be?

"We have no comment on the situation," health department spokesman Michael Golden said.

The governor's chief of staff, Paul E. Schurick, would say only this: "It is critical that the governor know what commitments are being made to legislators and what commitments legislators are asking for."

So far there's been no word from Howard "Rick" Sampson, director of the health department's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, on why he stood up members of two legislative committees in as many days. He did not return a phone call about why he missed yesterday's meeting or the one Tuesday with the Special House Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

The gag order has made life a bit awkward for state employees accustomed to fielding media inquiries. "How can I not help you today?" one asked a reporter. "What else can I not tell you?" another employee remarked.

The union representing state workers is downright angry about the edict and fears that members will be disciplined for voicing opinions.

"This is a blatant and deliberate violation of employees' right to free speech," said William Bolander, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 92, which represents state workers.

"AFSCME is putting the governor and Cabinet secretaries on notice that if any of our members are disciplined in any way, we will personally sue in federal court whoever is responsible," he said.

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who barely speaks with Mr. Schaefer these days, fired off some choice criticism of his own.

"It completely jeopardizes the legislative process. In a free society, information must be exchanged and disseminated freely," Mr. Steinberg said.

But some legislators, especially those who believe the gag order will be short-lived, are taking it in stride.

Del. Virginia M. Thomas, D-Howard, a vice chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee, surveyed the meeting room devoid of health officials yesterday.

"I have no problem with talking to an empty chair and asking questions," she quipped.

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