It's outrageous to dock a worker who speaks out

DAN RODRICKS

September 02, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

The city's decision to dock Kevin Humes a week's pay for speaking to the press has got to be one of the all-time great acts of pettiness. Did I miss something? Is Schaefer mayor again?

Not only is the Humes docking petty, but it's also unconstitutional -- not to mention a violation of the man's earthly, fundamental, inalienable -- are you listenin' to me, boy? -- God-given, full-blooded American rights!

It's very simple. Kevin Humes has the right to criticize his government. Just because he works for his government doesn't mean he can't knock it. (Maybe he can't because he works with a paint brush instead of a briefcase.)

The men who suspended him -- or who allow the suspension to stand -- need major attitude surgery.

Humes is the Housing Authority employee, a 25-year-old painter, who, when asked, told Baltimore television stations what he thought of Dan Henson's move to suddenly stop honoring the authority's heat-leave contract clause.

Under this clause, maintenance workers get time off with pay when the noon temperature reaches 90 degrees and humidity reaches 55 percent. Seventeen times this summer workers got time off; seven of those times it was a mistake because the city -- not the workers -- used the wrong information source for determining noontime conditions.

Henson, up to his chin in work orders for public housing projects, threw a little fit last week and decided -- contract! schmontract! -- he'd just cancel the city's agreement to honor the heat clause.

It might not have been legally correct action, but it certainly was bold action, and that's something we have not seen from a city official since Du Burns wore a loud tie.

This Henson, who makes $103,000 a year, is well regarded by movers and shakers with car phones. He's been a developer in Baltimore for a long time. But he probably didn't like the labor contract his predecessors negotiated and he probably viewed the 30-year-old heat-leave clause as a bunch of horse hockey.

So, I guess it was Henson's right to do what he did. He must have figured he'd get wide public approval for coming down on Housing Authority maintenance workers who would be seen as goldbricks.

Then Kevin Humes showed up on TV to criticize Henson's action.

He'd been warned by a supervisor not to say anything. (One is tempted to believe Humes' supervisor feared reprisal from his Housing Authority superior if any underlings got mouthy with the press.)

When he did, his super cited him for insubordination -- Humes is not a team player, I guess -- and told him to put his paint brush down and to take the rest of the day off without pay.

Humes was suspended -- we thought, at first, for one day. It turns out he was suspended a whole week's pay, which comes to $250.

For what?

For criticizing his government.

Forget the heat-leave issue. That's beside the point. What Kevin Humes did is something thousands of people do on talk radio every day. It's what government whistle-blowers receive awards for. (If government employers did not fear reprisals from their supervisors, maybe more of them would speak out about waste and fraud, or misguided policy.)

That guys like Kevin Humes can spout off about government action, particularly when that government is their employer, is something that would have pleased all the lords of constitutional democracy. We're talking smiles on the faces of Founding Fathers.

Insubordination?

If Humes refused to follow a work order, or if he used four-letter words to describe his boss, that would be insubordination. Expressing his opinion? Letting off steam? That's not insubordination. That's a right.

What I'd like to know: Where's the mayor? Does Mayor Snore know about this? Does he stand by it? Or is he taking a little snooze over there in City Hall?

Or maybe he's out of town. It wouldn't be a surprise, after all, to find him "testing the waters" again about running for governor. Yeah, maybe he's been in Frostburg, welcoming the students back to college. Maybe he's serving as celebrity judge at a crab derby on Hooper Island. Maybe he's at the State Fair.

Wherever he is, I hope he phones in an order to get Kevin Humes back to work -- with back pay.

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