Lorsung breathes life into GOP plan Democrat offers compromise on personnel overhaul

June 11, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

The Republican fight to overhaul Howard County's personnel system has an unlikely new savior: Democratic Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung.

With the support of local public employee unions, the west Columbia council member offered a compromise yesterday on a Republican plan to write more flexibility into the personnel section of the county's charter.

Her compromise would preserve the right of employees to appeal unfavorable job reviews. It also would preserve the right of union employees to settle disputes through binding arbitration.

Council Republicans complained loudly at yesterday's meeting, the second of the council's work sessions on proposed charter changes. But by the end of the meeting, Lorsung's proposal had survived -- and so had Republican hopes of writing major personnel changes in the county's charter.

"She's the one who I hope can see the way clear to break the old stranglehold of the old system," said Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican and rare ally of Lorsung.

The council is in the process of reviewing charter changes recommended by a commission in April.

The changes that survive the council review -- including a July 15 public hearing and a July 25 council vote -- will go to voters in November.

Lorsung has special stature in this debate because charter changes require a two-thirds vote of the council to make the ballot.

On a five-member council, that means four votes. The Republicans have three. And Lorsung, in the minority since she won her district in 1994, suddenly is the swing vote.

"We met with her a number of times," said George F. Gisin, an official with Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and a spokesman for the county's 550 unionized workers. "We were smart enough to recognize that she held the keys to the kingdom."

Drown and County Executive Charles I. Ecker, also a Republican, have made overhauling the personnel system a top priority.

Ecker was unavailable for comment yesterday, but he has called the system antiquated and inflexible. He paid $50,000 to a San Diego consultant to help convert the county to a "pay-for-performance" system that would base raises on evaluations made by supervisors.

A draft of that consultant's report has circulated among administration officials, though they declined to release it yesterday. The final draft should be available to the public in a week or so, said Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer.

No matter what that report says, Ecker and council Republicans will have trouble implementing a new personnel system unless some charter changes pass.

The charter currently allows employees to appeal almost any decision by a supervisor to the personnel board. The resulting battle makes supervisors reluctant to deny raises, and nearly all of the county's 1,800 employees get such raises every year, say Republicans.

The problem could get more severe under a "pay-for-performance" system.

Administrators envision a range of options -- big raise, small raise, no raise -- depending on an individual's performance. But if employees can challenge any of those decisions, all but those with largest raises would appeal, Sanudo said.

Without a change in the charter, "it would be very cumbersome to implement a pay-for-performance [system]," Sanudo said.

Lorsung's compromise would allow appeals only when employees receive evaluations that lead to no raise whatsoever.

The right to other types of appeals -- except for disciplinary actions -- would be gone.

Union officials also were pleased with Lorsung's proposal to preserve members' right to settle disputes through binding arbitration.

"You can't police yourself when you're a government entity," said Kevin Henry, president of the firefighters' union.

Drown dislikes both compromise provisions.

However, unless C. Vernon Gray, the other council Democrat, warms to the Republican plan, Drown must choose to accept Lorsung's conditions or scrap the charter changes.

Council Republicans likely will huddle in coming weeks and decide if they can live with Lorsung's compromise.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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