Ecker's dual life near end? Outsiders praise, employees distrust Howard executive

December 13, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The dual life Charles Isaac Ecker leads as county executive could be about to come to an end.

At the halfway point of his first term, many people outside of county government say he is doing a terrific job. But many people inside county government say that is far from true.

Mr. Ecker's dilemma is that he needs the support of those inside county government to continue pleasing those outside.

Until now, budget-cutting strategies -- laying off 40 workers, furloughing employees, keeping more than 100 vacancies unfilled, eliminating or reducing pay raises for county employees -- have hardly been noticed outside the county office building.

The things that have been noticed -- once-a-week trash collection, higher parks and recreation fees, shorter library hours and a 14-cent increase in the property tax rate to cope with what Mr. Ecker calls "the worst economic condition I've seen in 36 years" -- have brought few complaints.

"It's a most difficult time to be county executive," says Carol Filipczak, president of the issue-oriented Howard County Citizens' Association. "He has dealt with things with a minimum of disruption. His whole approach [to the county's financial crisis] has been very methodical."

What people outside county government like most about Mr. Ecker is his self-deprecating humor, his "Aw shucks, I'm just Chuck" attitude, and his willingness to meet with them privately on any turf to discuss any agenda.

Even detractors give him high marks for candor and accessibility.

"He's a decent human being, a good individual, and a very likableman," says John W. Taylor of Highland, a slow-growth activist who opposes Mr. Ecker's land-use policies.

Mr. Taylor would like to tarnish Mr. Ecker's reputation, but finds it difficult.

"His basic personality makes him a Teflon executive," Mr. Taylor says. "He is always a gentleman." There's a perception that "nice people don't do bad things."

Rank-and-file employees aren't so sure. Morale is low, tension is high. Employees fear that if they speak their minds, they will lose their jobs.

"Chuck won't have any trouble keeping his [campaign] promise to downsize county government," says a department head. "Everybody on my staff plans to jump ship as soon as the !B economy turns around. I'm not talking about newcomers. I'm talking about people who've been here 10, 15, 20 years. This place is going to look like a ghost town."

Mr. Ecker hadn't planned it that way.

"My greatest source of pleasure," he says, "is seeing happy employees getting credit for the work they do."

Mr. Ecker has met with a different group of employees for doughnuts and coffee each week to hear their concerns -- he plans to meet with all of them eventually -- yet employees don't trust him.

The layoffs

The employees think he lied when shortly after the November 1990 election he followed an aide's advice and sent employees a holiday note with their paychecks. The note said no one would be laid off.

But four months later, 40 people were -- including some who had been with the county for more than a decade. Their jobs were terminated effective July 1, but they were let go in April. "Finding a new job is your most important work between now and then," Mr. Ecker told them at the time.

"Letting people go is the most difficult thing I've ever done," Mr. Ecker says. "I sit down and counsel and try to do what's best for people, but they can't always see that."

County government once provided career-minded people with job security, good benefits and a reasonable pension, says retiree Al White. "But not any longer. Now you don't know if you're working the next month, the next day, whatever."

Employees live in fear that if they ask for meal money or demand compensation for overtime, they will be laid off, Mr. White says.

Mr. White is immediate past president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local representing 300 blue-collar workers in the public works and parks departments.

"Many departments are so understaffed that sooner or later it's going to have a serious effect on the public," he says.

Many employees agree. "We are so understaffed," says a firefighter, "that unless things change, we're going to have a serious accident. We're ripe for catastrophe and I don't want to be around when it happens."

In the schools

The situation in the school system is not much better, says

James Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association.

"When Chuck Ecker worked for the school system [as deputy superintendent], the perception was that he worked for educators and did a good job," Mr. Swab says. "A lot of teachers had faith he would honor their contract. They were shocked to find out he would not."

School employees work as hard as ever and perform as well as ever, Mr. Swab says. "But they are having a horrible time. Growing numbers of teachers are taking part-time jobs to pay bills. That cannot be a plus for education. Chuck Ecker needs to realize that.

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