Aberdeen councilman urges drug testing for city workers mayor opposed

July 11, 1993|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing writer

Most Aberdeen city employees, from the lowest-paid to the mayor, would be randomly tested for illegal drug use under a city councilman's proposal.

"The city is like any large corporation where people handle money, drive equipment and carry guns," said Councilman Charles R. Boutin.

He said drug testing would cost considerably less than the potential expense of lawsuits stemming from accidents caused by employees using illegal drugs.

But Mayor Ruth Elliott disputed the need for drug testing.

"We are a small city with only about 95 employees on board, and I don't believe we have any [drug] problems," she said. "But should some surface, our supervisors certainly have the capability to detect them."

The mayor suggested that drug-abuse detection and a rehabilitation policy included in the city employees' benefits are sufficient.

Mr. Boutin said he has yet to work out such details as which workers would be tested and how often tests would be conducted.

The councilman, who hopes the city will begin testing employees by December, estimates that drug tests could cost from $12 to $25 each, depending on the number conducted.

He plans to meet with Peter Dacey, city administrator, to write a pro

posal, which will then be presented to the City Council for consideration.

Mr. Boutin said he would ensure that such testing does not violate workers' constitutional rights.

An initial "amnesty provision" would give employees the chance to admit to an illegal drug problem and seek counseling without fear of action being taken against them, Mr. Boutin said.

The city considered drug testing about two years ago, Mrs. Elliott said, but shelved the idea after the city attorney expressed concerns about violating workers' rights.

The idea was also dropped because Aberdeen was changing to a mayoral government at the time, Mr. Dacey said. "It just wasn't a high priority at the time."

Most legal barriers to drug testing fell in the late 1980s with the start of federal regulations mandating testing in certain jobs.

Maryland's policy on testing state workers, considered one of the nation's toughest, requires random urinalysis for 13,000 state workers employed in safety-related fields.

Other governments, including Baltimore City, Baltimore and Montgomery counties and Westminster, test employees for drugs.

Harford County tests all new employees and those suspected of using drugs. Bel Air started random drug testing in October 1991 employees in the "sensitive" job classification, which includes public safety workers and those who handle confidential records.

Harford's other municipality, Havre de Grace, has no drug-testing program for its city workers.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, wonders why a drug-testing policy is being considered for Aberdeen.

"Frankly, [drug testing is] kind of silly for a small city," he said. "If the employees perform their job, why bother with drug tests?"

Gene Guerro of the ACLU's Washington office said he doesn't argue against safety concerns but suggests that the city consider alternatives to drug testing.

Mr. Guerro prefers performance tests to drug tests. Performance tests, he said, are not only easier and cheaper but also more accurate in testing job impairment, regardless of the cause.

Lack of sleep is the major problem of job-related accidents, followed by alcohol abuse, he said. "Performance tests flag all problems related to impaired job performance -- illegal drug use, alcohol abuse, lack of sleep, stress, neurological problems," he added.

Mr. Guerro also said that research statistics show that drug use on the job has reached a record low.

"Drug use peaked in 1979, but now is even lower than when the government began keeping records in the early '70s," he said.

Members of the Aberdeen Police Officers Union Local 231 would support a random drug-testing policy only if they deem it fair and equitable to all city employees, said Sgt. Kenneth Cox, a member of the union's board of directors.

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