State's Attorney Can't Be Santa, Too

COMMENT

January 08, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

Howard County has a new state's attorney and she's tough.

Republican Marna McLendon took office last week as the county's chief law enforcement officer promising "vigor, enthusiasm and very spirited representation."

Just days prior to that she had showed the door to nine staff attorneys in a shake-up that some might consider brutal. The firing came just two days before Christmas on -- could it be true? -- a Friday. The annual office party was held the day before.

According to Ms. McLendon, an adviser suggested that it might be better to deliver the pink slips just before the holidays so that the recipients would have plenty of family around to console about their job loss. (And I bet they sent her Christmas gifts to show their appreciation, too.)

No, I'd rather think compassion did not play much of a role in Ms. McLendon's Merry Massacre.

Rather, our new state's attorney was sending a message about who she is and how she intends to run the office.

I say more power to her. It is long overdo.

Granted, the symbolism of an act like this can come back to haunt a public official. Some voters don't like their politicians mean, even though they would be the first to give the heave to an elected official who disappointed them. But I think there are probably as many people who find it refreshing that Ms. McLendon acted so decisively.

When was the last time you saw a public official come in with concrete ideas and act on them? And fire a public employee? I thought that wasn't allowed under the Constitution.

Truth is, the lawyers who work for the state's attorney serve at her pleasure and are not protected under civil service rules, so Ms. McLendon had an advantage that other elected officials often do not.

Still, she did the job without the customary teeth-gnashing that usually precede such events and for that everyone, including those dismissed, should be grateful. Not to add insult to injury for those fired, but those were nine people who prided themselves on a certain legal ruthlessness, or at least they should have.

It shouldn't have taken a law degree to figure out that a Republican taking over a state's attorney's office held for 16 years by the same Democrat might want to make a few changes. In fact, three prosectors in the office left voluntarily shortly after the November election.

Rather than an act of spite, Ms. McLendon appears to have acted in an efficient and prudent manner. Having spent two weeks of interviews with attorneys, masters, judges, social service workers, public defenders, police and practically anyone who has anything to do with the legal system, the only question left was when to do the deed, Ms. McLendon said.

And for that she spoke with personnel experts. The consensus wasn't surprising: There is no good time for bad news, but sooner is better than later.

And there was a pragmatic reason for letting people go when she did. It meant that their replacements could be sworn in on the same day as Mc. McLendon last week.

Ms. McLendon appears intent on hitting the ground running. She's got some good ideas, is open to suggestions and, with any luck, may actually deliver. That would be a welcome change from what the county state's attorney's office has become known for -- a tendency to be short on prosecutions and long on plea bargains.

Ms. McLendon promised to shake things up, and she's doing it. The squeamish should look the other way. This kind of rational straightforwardness should carry over into how Ms. McLendon's office prosecutes cases.

Chief among her concerns is the handling of juvenile criminals. With children under 18 making up a third of all felony arrests in Howard County, Ms. McLendon has rightfully pledged to get tough about the problem. She has already established a juvenile strategy group to explore ways to send the right message to young offenders. The goal is to turn them around early, before their crimes become more serious, she said.

For a community that has become increasingly alarmed at crimes committed by youths, that sort of approach should be reassuring. But it will take someone with true grit to make good on it.

Marna McLendon may be just that person.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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