Officials target personnel system Republicans seek to change charter

April 29, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Using a variety of weapons -- from a paid consultant to a proposed change in the Howard County charter -- Republican officials are taking aim at how the county hires, fires and pays its workers.

"It's a frontal assault on how we operate government," said Darrel Drown, the Republican chairman of the County Council, which tonight will hold a hearing on specific proposals to change the charter -- in effect the county's constitution.

The county's entrenched merit system renders the government inefficient when it comes to personnel matters, Mr. Drown said, particularly with regard to transferring workers and changing their duties.

"There's myriad of issues that need to be addressed," he said.

But local workers and unions are not happy with such sentiments.

George Gisin, an official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents government workers in six area counties, said Howard officials have been the most aggressive in challenging workers' rights.

"They're leaders of the pack, so to speak," said Mr. Gisin, who

uses "assault" to describe the GOP officials' efforts.

Republican officials argue that the current personnel system makes it too difficult to transfer workers, fire those who are incompetent or quickly hire workers needed in today's technologically sophisticated workplace. They also argue that supervisors need more control over the county's nearly 2,000 nonschool employees.

Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker is paying a consultant $35,000 to analyze the personnel and human resources system and recommend ways to implement a "pay-for-performance" system involving more detailed evaluation categories for county workers.

The administration sponsored a bill this year that would make it easier to transfer county workers. It was passed along party lines, 3-2. The county now can eliminate a position and transfer the worker to a lower-paying job.

Republican officials say such flexibility can help the county avoid layoffs. But Mr. Gisin, the union leader, says: "I don't think the issue is flexibility. I think the issue is control."

The latest battle is over a proposal to drop a charter provision that allows workers to appeal their performance evaluations to the county personnel board.

The administration is convinced that if workers can continue to appeal every evaluation, it would be difficult to implement a pay-for-performance system, said Jimmie Saylor, Mr. Ecker's personnel chief.

"It would be rather cumbersome," she said.

The administration's efforts to win that charter change could be stymied by partisan factors, however. Regular bills require three votes to pass, but four votes are needed to send proposed charter changes to a citizen vote.

Therefore, the three council Republicans need a vote from one of the Democrats: Mary C. Lorsung of West Columbia or C. Vernon Gray of East Columbia.

Count out Mr. Gray.

"I think it's absolutely unconscionable," he said about the proposal to drop the right of appeal. "It's absolutely wrong."

Mr. Gray said evaluations are subjective, and employees often need protection in the political environment of county government.

Ms. Lorsung wasn't quite so negative. She said she is willing to make some changes to the personnel system but doesn't want to move too quickly.

Mr. Drown admits both Democrats probably will vote against the proposal.

Tonight's meeting about the charter -- at 8 p.m. in the George Howard building in the county government complex in Ellicott City -- will address more than personnel issues.

Also on the agenda are proposed changes to Question B, which allows citizens to challenge zoning decisions by gathering signatures to place an issue on the ballot. It was passed in the 1994 elections despite objections from the county power structure.

The Charter Review Commission is recommending an increase in the number of voter signatures required to take a land-use decision to referendum.

The commission also recommends a limit to the types of land-use cases that could be challenged by referendum, according to its final report released this month. The commission believes the owners of individual properties shouldn't be subjected "to the uncertainties of the referendum process."

But slow-growth proponents say the changes would weaken Question B. A Charter Review Commission member takes exception to the proposed changes.

"Question B was passed by an overwhelming majority of the voters," commission member Tom Flynn wrote in a minority report. "I do not believe the will of the people should be subverted by adoption of the proposed amendment."

After hearings and discussions on the proposed charter amendments, the council expects to vote on a final charter proposal by July. Any proposed charter revisions would be placed on the ballot for the November general election.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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